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The South March Highlands

Yellow Trout Lily

One of my favourite places to go birding in late May and early June is the South March Highlands in Kanata North. It is said that this forest has the highest ecological value and biodiversity of any area within the City of Ottawa, with more than 654 species found within its borders – some of which are considered to be species at risk, such as the Blanding’s Turtle, Least Bittern, and Butternut Tree. These Canadian Shield uplands are rich in wetlands and mature forest, with marshes, ponds, deciduous forest and coniferous forest all accessible via a network of trails. Despite its ecological significance, the City of Ottawa has allowed parts of the forest to be sold to developers and clear-cut for new homes and the infamous Terry Fox Drive extension. Still, the forest that remains is a beautiful spot for birding, though it is extremely popular with mountain bikers and caution should be taken not to block the trails while scanning the tree tops for warblers!

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Waterfowl Study at the Eagleson Ponds

Canada Goose

A week ago I missed a Greater White-fronted Goose at the Eagleson storm water ponds by about half an hour. This is one of my nemesis birds, and although I’ve finally had a couple of really close encounters with one at Andrew Haydon Park back in December 2015, that was the last time I’ve seen one. Since then I’ve been hoping to find one among the thousands of Canada Geese that drop in at the Eagleson ponds each migration, and as soon as I heard one was there on November 12th I rushed right over. Unfortunately several flocks of Canada Geese were leaving, heading south although it was quite late in the day by that time. The Greater White-fronted Goose must have gone with them, because although I studied the remaining geese until there were only a few hundred left, I could not find it. By then it was 4:30 pm, and a dark bank of clouds in the west was quickly ushering in an early twilight.

I didn’t spend much time birding this past weekend, again because of the weather. Our first winter storm – freezing rain followed by snow as the temperature dropped – was scheduled to arrive around noon on Saturday, November 18th, and was expected to last into Sunday afternoon. I headed out to Andrew Haydon Park just after daybreak to chase a report of a rare pair of King Eiders (both females) but none of us looking along the river managed to relocate them. There were still plenty of other waterfowl to watch during our vigil, including a flock of Brant flying upriver, a Cackling Goose spotted by Jon Ruddy, about 15 Lesser Scaup (Jon checked them for Greater Scaup as I still need this species for my year list), three Black Scoters, a couple of Surf or White-winged Scoters, too far out for me to ID, several Common Goldeneye, and a group of Bufflehead close to the shore.

After dipping on the King Eider, I headed over to the Eagleson ponds to check out the waterfowl scene there. There were only about 300 Canada Geese there, along with the usual mallards (much increased in number since the summer), a Mallard x American Black Duck hybird, a few Hooded Mergansers, and half a dozen Common Mergansers, newly arrived about a week ago. Then, around 10:30 – about 90 minutes early according to the forecast – the freezing rain started. That’s when the geese started flying in, among them three white-morph Snow Geese – an adult and two grayish juveniles!

To my surprise it wasn’t the waterfowl that interested me most – it was the herons. A young Great Blue Heron was standing on the rocks with one leg tucked up, looking fairly cold.

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Herons are fairly cold-tolerant, and a few can be found in Ottawa right up until freeze-up in December each year. In 2016 I had one at the ponds until November 26th, so seeing one on the 18th isn’t the latest date for me yet! Once the freezing rain started I left the ponds to do some shopping, and when I returned I made sure to drive by them on Emerald Meadows Drive. I saw a brown shape in one of the trees that lines the channel, and pulled over thinking it was an owl or a hawk. Instead it turned out to be a juvenile Black-crowned Night-heron sleeping. This is the latest date I’ve ever seen one, and the first time I’ve seen one in November – no wonder eBird marked it as rare! Hopefully it will head south soon instead of suffering through our cold, often inclement Ottawa winter.

Black-crowned Night-heron

I returned to the ponds again yesterday once the snow stopped in the afternoon. It was cold but the sun was starting to peek through the clouds. I checked the central pond briefly, spotted a few Common and Hooded Mergansers, then hurried to the southern pond to check out the geese – there were about twice the number there, most of which appeared to be dozing. I checked the small bay frequented by the egrets over the summer, and was astonished to find this lovely fellow dabbling by himself:

Northern Shoveler

I remembered hearing about a shoveler at the ponds recently, though when I checked eBird the observer didn’t note whether it was a male or a female. Female Northern Shovelers look a lot like female mallards, except for the enormous bill, and it would easy for one to hide among the many mallards inhabiting the ponds these days. Male Northern Shovelers are much more conspicuous with their bright white bodies, chestnut flanks, green heads, and gleaming yellow eyes. He was easy to pick out as he was alone in a small bay away from the numerous Canada Geese.

I realized then that he wasn’t completely alone, as a male Wood Duck was swimming toward him! This is a species I’ve only seen twice before at the ponds, and I was happy to see him as I didn’t get any photos of the other two Wood Ducks. He dabbled with the shoveler for a bit before swimming right toward me.

Wood Duck

Eventually the Wood Duck turned around, began foraging close to shore, and disappeared around the end of the bay.

The Northern Shoveler, too, began swimming, heading straight toward the large flock of Canada Geese. In this photo he shows one of my favourite field marks (apart from the huge, black, spoon-shaped bill): the brilliant green backside, seen only in good light.

Northern Shoveler

A couple of small birds flew into the shrubs next to me; a pretty male House Finch began chirping musically from a snowy perch, while two others disappeared inside the branches. I thought this image looked very wintery:

House Finch

While I was watching the House Finch the Northern Shoveler disappeared into the throng of geese, so I spent some time studying them instead. A number of geese close to the shore looked smaller than usual, though they didn’t strike me as being small enough to be called Cackling Geese. Then I noticed this individual resting with its beak tucked into its back feathers. It appeared paler than the geese around it, and its head had a peak at the back and a bump on the forehead.

Canada Goose

The white cheek patch also had a slight indentation curving around the eye, though the cheek patch didn’t seem as broad as those I’ve seen on Cackling Geese. I just needed the bird to raise its head in order to get a look at its bill and the shape of its forehead.

Canada Goose

The bird stood, and was not the classic Cackling Goose I was expecting. Instead of a stubby little bill and a vertical forehead giving the bird a blocky-looking head, the bill was long and the forehead was sloped, making the head look wedge-shaped. There seemed to be an indentation at the back of the head, too.

Canada Goose

Another bird fooled me for a moment – note the bird with the closed eye in the foreground. Though not particularly tiny, the shape of the head caught my attention as it was round rather than wedge-shaped. However the forehead was not steep enough and the bill was too long to be a Cackling Goose.

Canada Goose

Then I saw what I was certain was a Cackling Goose – it was half the size of the Canada Goose behind it, and paler overall with a distinct peak at the back of the head. It was attempting to sleep, and I had to wait several minutes for it to raise its head.

Canada Geese

Once again I was disappointed. No stubby bill, no wide cheek patch, no vertical forehead. It was so tiny I was sure it had to be a Cackling Goose, though perhaps a different subspecies than the ones we usually get here.

Canada Geese

Later I learned that the only subspecies of Cackling Goose that passes through Ottawa is the diminutive Richardson’s Cackling Goose, which has the classic short, thick neck, stubby, drooping bill, paler, grayer body, and a broad white cheek patch with an indentation below the eye. The small geese at the Eagleson ponds were still Canada Geese – but a different subspecies than the ‘Giant’ Canada Geese that normally reside and breed here in Ottawa. Interestingly, the ‘Giant’ Canada subspecies was extirpated in our area in the early 1900s and believed to be extinct, but was rediscovered in the 1960s. In the early 1970s many individuals were released in southern Ontario, including Ottawa, in order to establish a breeding population in our province.

Canada Geese

However, northern geese that breed near James and Hudson’s Bays are smaller than the resident ‘Giant’ Canada Geese. There may be two subspecies breeding up in the hinterlands, the ‘Lesser’ Canada Goose and the ‘Interior’ Canada Goose. These two races can weigh as little as 6 lbs while the ‘Giant’ Canada Goose can weigh as much as 23 lbs! So the small geese I’d been seeing were likely one of these two subspecies.

Canada Geese

Fall is a wonderful time to see migrating waterfowl and look for different species among the regular ‘Giant’ Canada Geese and mallards. The Eagleson ponds have been fairly productive lately, though it doesn’t get all the diving ducks found on the Ottawa River or Andrew Haydon Park. Still, the smaller ponds mean the birds are closer for photographing and studying. I really enjoy going to the ponds and picking through all the geese to see if I can find something different, whether a full species or subspecies, especially if it’s new for the hotspot!

Canada Goose

Costa Rica, Day 4: A Visit to the Rainforest

Thick-billed Seed-finch

The second part of our full-day outing with Olivier Esquivel consisted of a visit to the rainforest which promised fantastic, colorful birds like motmots, tanagers, euphonias and toucans. After leaving Santa Rosa National Park we drove east along Highway 917 and gradually gained elevation as we climbed the slope of what I took to be one of the two volcanos that our next destination was nestled between. The road started out paved, but eventually turned into a some sort of hard-packed earthen trail embedded with rocks. This slowed us down, but gave us time to take in the views of the fields and wind turbines outside the van’s windows with the volcanoes looming in the background. An Eastern Meadowlark was a familiar sight in the grassy fields; like the Red-winged Blackbird, I knew it lived in Costa Rica year-round, but it still seemed strange to see one so far from “home”.

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Rain and Flooding in Ottawa

Palm Warbler

After one of the wettest Aprils on record, both the Ottawa and Gatineau Rivers have burst their banks, causing extensive flooding that has affected hundreds of homes on both sides of the provincial border. A combination of snow melt flowing into the Ottawa River through its various tributaries and the high volume of rainfall this spring caused the water to rise faster than could be controlled by engineers at the various dams along the river. The Ottawa River is the highest it has been in decades, and neither I nor the long-time birders here have seen anything like it.

This month alone (now only seven days old) has seen over 100 mm of rain, with 45mm rain on May 1st, 40mm on Friday, and 20 mm yesterday. In the 24-hour period between Saturday afternoon and Sunday afternoon, the Ottawa River rose 17cm, and, according to the Ottawa River Regulation Planning Board, is expected to rise a further 5cm before its peak on Monday. A state of emergency has been declared in Gatineau, where the Canadian Forces was on hand to help police reach difficult to access areas. On the Ontario side, Cumberland and Constance Bay were the two areas affected most, followed by Britannia, Dunrobin, Fitzroy Harbour and MacLarens Landing.

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Spring Comes to Ottawa

Cedar Waxwing

April has arrived, and I think spring has finally arrived with it. We’ve finally had some nice, sunny days and the weather has warmed up, so Deb and I finally got together to do some birding on the second day of April. We headed over to Mud Lake, where we only managed to tally 20 species; this is usually a great place to take in spring migration, but there was surprisingly little difference in the species seen since my previous visit on March 18th. The best birds there were an American Tree Sparrow, three Wood Ducks flying along the river, and an adult Cooper’s Hawk in the woods. Once again a male and female Downy Woodpecker pair came readily to my hand to take some food. I am now noting these birds in eBird, as I’ve been hand-feeding them for a couple of years now. The starlings singing near the filtration plant were of special interest, as we heard them imitating the calls of a Killdeer, an Eastern Wood-pewee, and even a Tree Frog!

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Algonquin Park: Finches, Martens, and Canada’s National Bird

Gray Jay

Gray Jay

It’s been a while since I’ve been to Algonquin Park – over three and a half years! – and after having a camping trip with Dad last summer and a birding trip with Deb this winter both fall through, I wasn’t sure when I’d get to visit that beautiful park again. When Jon Ruddy announced an excursion to Algonquin this month, I jumped on the chance to go. The birding there this winter has been excellent, with not only the usual Boreal specialties being found on most visits (including Gray Jay, Evening Grosbeak, Boreal Chickadee, and Spruce Grouse), but also most of the winter finches as well. In addition, the park naturalists had put out a road-killed moose carcass in the valley below the Visitor Center, and foxes were being seen feeding on it. Pine Martens have also been observed at the suet feeders and Mew Lake garbage bins in the park on occasion.

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A Walk at the Pond

Eastern Cottontail

Eastern Cottontail

On the last day of July I got a late start and headed over to the storm water ponds with the intention of checking them briefly before heading elsewhere. However, I had such a great time I ended up spending almost 90 minutes there! Once again when I arrived, I was startled to see a number of swallows flying above the ponds. Most appeared to be Barn Swallows, but I did see at least two Bank Swallows flying with them. It is interesting to think that they managed to nest here this past summer with all the construction going on; fortunately the bridge they nest under hasn’t been touched by the construction. I later found the Barn Swallows resting on the roof of a nearby house, and counted about 15 of them.

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