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The Ducks are Back in Town

Bufflehead (male)

Bufflehead (male)

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.

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June Atlassing Highlights

Blue-winged Teal (male)

Blue-winged Teal (male)

June is my favourite month of the year. This is the month when most insects begin to emerge, their bright wings bringing life and colour to forests, meadows, ponds and backyard gardens. Birds are in full song, and the air is fragrant with all the flowers in bloom. While butterflies and dragonflies become my main focus this time of year, this month I had a second agenda: to continue to look for evidence of breeding for the third Ontario Breeding Bird Atlas. Since I am still working from home as a result of the pandemic, I devoted my morning weekday walks to looking for birds and my longer weekend excursions to looking for all types of wildlife, particularly dragonflies. I thought birding would become boring once migration ended and the resident birds settled down into the more predictable routine of nesting season, but to my surprise I was wrong.

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An Early Spring

Eastern Chipmunk

Eastern Chipmunk

It’s been a while since we’ve had an early spring in Ottawa. In recent years it seems that the snow hasn’t melted until late April, it hasn’t really warmed up until May, and while the first couple of waves of migrants arrived on time, migration slowed down for a few weeks sometime in April when the north wind started blowing out of the Arctic again. Insect-eating birds were delayed, the butterflies and dragonflies emerged late, and then the Victoria Day long weekend hit and suddenly summer has arrived with temperatures in the mid to high twenties.

This year, however, it warmed up early and stayed warm. Our last subzero day was March 16th, and we regularly started reaching double-digit temperatures on the first day of spring, with nine days at 10°C or higher during the rest of the month. Our total snowfall in March was only 6.8 cm, below the normal range of 11 to 84 cm, and it was the windiest March since 1974. It was the 10th warmest March on record; our highest temperature reached 19.8°C, above the normal range of 8.3 to 19.2°C. I kept waiting with dread for one last cold spell or dump of snow, but so far April has been even nicer, with the first two days reaching only 3°C and the rest (to date) ranging from 10 to 24°C. As the snow disappeared quite quickly last month, plants are emerging from the ground early, buds on trees are starting to leaf out early, and butterflies are emerging early. It’s been great for my mental health to see so many signs of new life and renewal.

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My first Christmas Bird Count

Pine Grosbeak

This year the Audubon Christmas Bird Count celebrates its 121st year. Counting birds at Christmas became a tradition in the year 1900 when ornithologist Frank M. Chapman proposed it as an alternative to the annual Christmas side hunt, a competition in which two different teams killed “practically everything in fur or feathers that crossed their path”. The idea of wildlife conservation was just beginning to take hold around the turn of the 20th century, and Chapman seemed optimistic that burgeoning criticism of the side hunt was a sign that the unnecessary slaughter of hundreds of non-game birds was coming to an end. Chapman asked readers of the journal Bird Lore (the predecessor of Audubon Magazine) to spend some of their time on Christmas Day conducting a census of the birds in their area and send the results to him for publication in February. During that first Christmas Bird Count, 27 enthusiastic birders from two provinces and thirteen states tallied 90 species. Counts took place in New Brunswick, Ontario, a handful of northeastern states, Missouri, Louisiana, Wisconsin, Colorado, and California. In most cases, there was only one observer per count!

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Migration Highlights from September

Savannah Sparrow

Savannah Sparrow

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.

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Late Summer in Stony Swamp

Snowshoe Hare (juvenile)

A few years ago I wrote a post about the winter wildlife of Stony Swamp. However, it’s a great place to see wildlife in late summer as well. Many birds are done raising their young and are leaving their nesting areas in a phenomenon known as post-breeding dispersal. By late August, the first songbirds have started migrating through our area as well. Many mammals, too, are moving around, fattening up for the winter ahead and looking for safe places to spend the winter. While there are fewer insect species around, many late-season insects are still breeding and laying eggs to ensure their species’ survival for another generation. Stony Swamp is a great place to see all of these, as the variety of habitats within its boundaries provide food and shelter for a variety of different creatures. And the one thing I like about the trails here is that I never know what’s going to turn up on an early morning or late afternoon walk!

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Birding in the Time of the Coronavirus

Blue-winged Teal (male)

The COVID-19 pandemic caused by the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) is going to be the largest global crisis in modern times. The outbreak started in Wuhan, Hubei, China, in December 2019, and was officially declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization on March 11, 2020. Coincidentally, Ottawa’s first confirmed case of COVID-19 was identified on March 11, 2020 when a Ciena employee returning from a trip overseas fell ill immediately after returning home. A second case also related to travel was made public on March 12, 2020, and our Prime Minister’s wife Sophie Gregoire Trudeau was confirmed to have a mild case the same day. As a precaution Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also went into a 14-day isolation at home, and as he never developed any symptoms, that isolation ended today. By March 13, 2020, the Canadian Tire Center had cancelled all events, the City of Ottawa had closed all of its facilities, a new screening center had been set up at Brewer Arena, and post-secondary schools had moved to online classes. March Break was just beginning for elementary and secondary schools, though they’d been advised that they, too, would be shutting down for a few weeks afterward.
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Chasing the Vermilion Flycatcher

Cinnamon Teal

Thursday turned out to be just as sunny as the previous days, with the temperature rising even higher. I had checked eBird the night before to see if any interesting birds were being seen at the Henderson Bird Viewing Preserve or Red Rock Canyon, and when I saw that a Vermilion Flycatcher had been present at Henderson for the past month, I immediately knew this was Thursday’s destination. Males are bright red with black wings, a black back, and a black mask, and if I had chosen a most-wanted bird of the south this would be it. Unfortunately the photos showed that the bird was a female, which is much drabber and looks more like a Say’s Phoebe, but would still be a life bird. Doran and I headed out to the Henderson Preserve early in the morning, and this time we only drove two blocks past the entrance before figuring out we had missed it (my map application had improved since our last visit, but not by much).
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October Summary

Wood Duck

October is a month of transition – we leave the hot days of summer behind (although September didn’t feel like summer this year, as the sultry 25-plus-degree temperatures of years past never materialized) and enter true fall, enjoying those crisp sunny days where the north wind carries a hint of winter and the brilliant orange and red foliage slowly starts to carpet the ground. The sun casts longer shadows as its zenith drops lower and lower in the sky each day, and the shorter days become evident when I have to leave for work in the dark in the morning. The birds, too, are transitioning, as most of the insect-eaters are now gone and the bulk of the seed-eaters – mainly sparrows – start moving through. It’s not going to be a good year for seeing finches in the south, as Ron Pittaway’s Winter Finch Forecast indicates bumper crops up north will keep the crossbills, redpolls and Pine Grosbeaks on their summer territory. Waterfowl and shorebirds are still moving through, although heavy rain toward the end of the month obliterated the remaining shorebird habitat along the Ottawa River – so much for the flocks of Dunlin and White-rumped Sandpipers I was hoping to find at Andrew Haydon Park again.

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Other Highlights from September

Monarch

When I’m not busy looking for birds and bugs at the Eagleson Ponds, I’ll be at one of the many other trails and conservation areas in west end. Stony Swamp attracts its fair share of migrants, and is home to numerous fascinating reptiles, amphibians, and insects, so I spend a lot of time there in the warmer months. Jack Pine Trail and the Beaver Trail are my favourite trails as the loops are small enough that they can be completed quickly, with a variety of habitats to attract different wildlife; however, Sarsaparilla Trail can also be amazing, although the boardwalk is still closed for repairs. I really mean to spend more time at Old Quarry Trail and Lime Kiln Trail, but as these are a bit further away, with larger trail systems, I often opt for the convenience of one of the other trails instead – especially if I have plans to go elsewhere after, such as Mud Lake or Andrew Haydon park.

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