I was supposed to spend Christmas with my Dad in Cambridge, Ontario. Unfortunately, a massive winter storm on December 23rd effectively cancelled those plans, as the terrible driving conditions along Highway 401 resulted in several accidents and even closures of sections of the largest highway in Ontario. Not keen on making the drive by myself once the weather improved (as my fiancé didn’t have any additional time off), I finally felt well enough to make the tiring 7-hour journey by train last week. I departed on March 8th, happy to leave the huge snowbanks of Ottawa behind and hopefully find warmer weather in southern Ontario. On this trip I planned to see both my father in Cambridge and my mother in Wallaceburg, which had no snow on the ground at the time (though of course that changed by the time I got there).
There have been very few signs of migration starting in Ottawa when I left on March 8th – normally the Red-winged Blackbirds and Ring-billed Gulls would have been back by then, but they were still absent from my neighbourhood and the Eagleson ponds by the time I left. However, when I got to my Dad’s place I was thrilled to see plenty of Red-winged Blackbirds and Common Grackles and even a male Brown-headed Cowbird at his feeder. The blackbirds had arrived in numbers, though several winter birds were still around – I was delighted to see a pair of American Tree Sparrows visiting with the juncos, Mourning Doves, and chickadees. Although late winter isn’t the ideal time for a visit, I did want to add some winter species to my southern Ontario county lists as normally I visit my parents in the warmer months. As a result, quite a few common species were missing from my Waterloo and Chatham lists, including the American Tree Sparrows visiting my Dad’s feeder!
Many species of waterfowl only migrate short distances in the fall and winter – they settle in on lakes and large rivers where the water is still open, and when those start icing over, only fly far enough south until they find the next patch of open water. In Ottawa, parts of the Ottawa and Rideau Rivers remain open year-round, attracting mallards, black ducks, Common Goldeneyes, and a handful of Canada Geese and Common Mergansers. A couple of Barrow’s Goldeneyes show up annually on the Rideau River, and Harlequin Ducks spend their winters on the rapids of the Ottawa River every two or three years. Most other ducks move further south below the snow line, spending the winter on the St. Lawrence River or Lake Ontario. Some, like the Wood Duck, spend their winters in the southern states, while other species, like the Blue-winged Teal, overwinter as far south as the northern coast of South America.
A large number of mallards stay in Ottawa even after their natural food on the shore becomes buried beneath snow and ice because they receive handouts from people – if you go to Mud Lake, you will often see large piles of seed or corn spread out for the birds to feed on. This also happens at Strathcona Park and Billings Bridge. Even storm water ponds that remain partially open due to warmer water temperatures host mallards and American Black Ducks in the winter – the pond on Iber Road in Stittsville is one such place, and the ducks there are also fed by humans. In the winter, the natural food of dabbling ducks includes aquatic insects, seeds and vegetation in shallow water, although I don’t imagine that these food sources are abundant enough in storm water ponds to support the large number of ducks that overwinter there. Diving ducks on the rivers are not dependent on humans, feeding on fish, crustaceans, mollusks, and insect larvae such as dragonfly or mayfly nymphs.
By the beginning of fall (September 22, 2022) I was feeling enough like myself to get out regularly and chase birds close to home. I was up to 158 species for my Ottawa year list, which wasn’t too shabby considering I’d spent most of the first four months at home recuperating from surgery and finishing my active cancer treatment, but I still needed a lot of species to reach my goal of about 200. I’d added Great Black-backed Gull and Redhead with a visit to the Moodie Drive quarry pond on September 20th, and two days later I saw the American Coot and Snow Goose that had been reported there. The day after that I visited the park off of Steeple Hill Park in Fallowfield and added two much-needed songbirds: Blue-headed Vireo and Orange-crowned Warbler. Highlights from that day included a Ruffed Grouse drumming in the woods somewhere and a Merlin flying over – briefly dashing after a goldfinch before flying on. Other warblers included Nashville, Magnolia, and Palm Warblers.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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. Continue reading →