Marlborough Forest has become one of my favourite spots to visit because of its bounty of butterflies, breeding birds, and dragonflies. The best month for visiting is June, when birds are are still singing and insect diversity is at its peak. The first few weeks of July are also a fine time to visit, as different butterflies are present than were initially flying in early June. By mid-August, however, it is harder to detect birds as most have stopped singing, and insect diversity is on the wane. Still, I thought I would visit the E4 trail on the third Saturday of August, a place I hadn’t been to since Canada Day. I was curious to see what birds might still be present, and whether it might be a good spot to see different darners and meadowhawks.
I arrived a little later than I usually do at the height of nesting season – 9:00 am instead of 7:00 am – to give it time to warm up. The biting bugs were not as bad as they are in the middle of summer, but I was annoyed to still find myself slapping mosquitoes away. The woods were very quiet compared to June; the Red-eyed Vireos and one Eastern Wood-pewee were still singing (both sing late into the season, sometimes into September), but the Ovenbirds, Scarlet Tanagers, Veeries, Nashville Warblers, Black-throated Green Warblers, White-throated Sparrows, and Swamp Sparrows were silent.
One of the best birding spots on Cape Split that I discovered through eBird, Ells Cemetery, was only a ten-minute walk down the highway – though honestly the walk along the highway was just as terrific. The highway was great for birding due to the edge habitat along which grew wildflowers and shrubs near the properties and thick stands of forest in between houses. There were plenty of conifers, which resulted in my most amazing discovery yet: crossbills! Both Red and White-winged Crossbills were present almost every day, and thanks to the irruption in Ottawa last winter I was able to identify their calls before I even saw them. Other birds seen or heard along the road include a cuckoo making its throaty “co-co-co” sound, Blue-headed Vireos, Red-eyed Vireos, more Alder Flycatchers (I heard at least nine on one morning), Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, White-throated Sparrows, juncos, a Purple Finch, and several warblers, most of which were in song – including Northern Parulas.
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!
November is goose season here in Ottawa. While flocks of local Canada Geese start gathering together in late September, geese from much further north begin arriving throughout October, once the lakes and rivers on their breeding grounds in the territories and along Hudson’s Bay freeze over, until their numbers peak in November. Ottawa is an important staging area for many different waterfowl species, as the Ottawa River and numerous small lakes and ponds in the area often remain open well into December; the geese rest on these bodies of water during the night, then go feed in the numerous agricultural fields just outside the city during the day. This is the time to look for Snow Geese and the diminutive Cackling Geese among them; if you are lucky you will find a Greater White-fronted Goose hiding within the flock – or something much rarer.
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!
It’s been a good season for hard-to-find dragonflies at the Eagleson Ponds. Ever since I discovered both Eastern Amberwings and Saffron-winged Meadowhawks here in 2017 I’ve been spending more time here later in the day looking for odes, rather than doing a quick search for birds first thing in the morning before heading elsewhere. The Covid-19 pandemic has made that even easier for me, as I am still working from home and can get out at lunch time for a quick check when the temperature has warmed up enough for many odes to be flying.
Mid-summer seems to be the best time for seeing a variety of odes at the ponds. While I have seen a few early-season species here, such as the Taiga Bluet and Spiny Baskettail, most odes that breed here don’t emerge until later in the summer. I’m not sure if the late start to spring had anything to do with it, but up until the end of June I found very few dragonflies here – skimmers are usually abundant throughout the season, but on June 30th I recorded a single Dot-tailed Whiteface and a single Twelve-spotted Skimmer along with a couple of Common Green Darners and Prince Baskettails that refused to land. Even the Eastern Forktails seemed down in numbers.
On Family Day I accompanied Jon Ruddy’s Eastern Ontario Birding trip to Algonquin Park to look for winter finches and other Boreal specialties. As predicted in Ron Pittaway’s Winter Finch Forecast back in September, the winter of 2019-2020 was not an irruption year; most finch species stayed up north in the Boreal Forest given the abundance of mountain-ash berries, spruce cones and birch seed crops there. This meant that while berry-eaters such as Pine Grosbeak and Bohemian Waxwings remained on their breeding territories in the far north, Pine Siskins, Evening Grosbeaks, and both crossbill species were widespread across central Ontario – including the traditional winter finch hotspot, Algonquin Park. Continue reading →
On our last full day in Las Vegas Doran and I went to the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area to spend some time in the desert. We returned to the Pine Creek Canyon trail, the place where our last trip to Las Vegas began. We got a late start, and were dismayed to see two long lines of vehicles waiting to enter the park. In addition, the price had risen to $15 per vehicle – on our last trip in December 2017 it had only been $7. As long as the money goes toward preserving the area or public education (the Visitor Center has some wonderful exhibits) I’m happy to pay an entrance fee, but the increase was a bit of shock.
We started our visit at the Visitor’s Center. As it was quite crowded we stayed away from the center itself, and walked around the parking lot looking for Cactus Wrens. This was my favourite bird from my last visit here, and I was disappointed when none appeared. We did see a White-tailed Antelope Squirrel scurrying across the parking lot, and I was worried that it would be hit by a car.