The August long weekend is here, and it’s been brutally hot and humid. Temperatures have reached as high as 32°C with a humidex of 41. It didn’t feel quite so hot yesterday, but today was awful. The sun was relentless, and there was no cooling breeze to provide relief. Being in the shade helped, but even so, I didn’t feel like staying out for very long.
We haven’t had much rain in the last month, so the water levels of the Ottawa River have dropped and mudflats are developing in Shirley’s Bay and Ottawa Beach. I wanted to look for shorebirds, but Shirley’s Bay didn’t sound too appealing – a long mosquito-infested walk through the woods to get to the dyke, which is almost completely open to the baking sun – all the while carrying a scope that sometimes feels like it weighs as much as I do. So yesterday I drove over to Andrew Haydon Park instead.
On the first day of the long weekend I decided to look for odonates at Mud Lake. Specifically, I wanted to find some spreadwings, Fragile Forktails, darners, big river clubtails, or Swift River Cruisers, as I hadn’t seen any of these yet this season. I ended up seeing a couple of Slender Spreadwings, a few skimmer species, one big river clubtail perching on a rock in the river (likely a Black-shouldered Spinyleg), and little else in the way of odes. Unfortunately my best dragonfly of the day turned out to the first one of the day, a skimmer that flew in from the lake, landed, and hung from a leaf about two feet above my head. I could only see the underside and I registered only two things: that it had large coloured patches on the hindwings, and that it appeared red. My first thought was that it was a Calico Pennant, but the spots didn’t look quite right, and the dragonfly seemed larger than a Calico Pennant. I moved around the shrub to get a view of it from the top, but the dragonfly flew off before I could get a photo or even a better look. Only later did I wonder if it was a saddlebags of some sort, or perhaps even a Widow Skimmer whose colours I’d misjudged. I’m not sure what it was, but I really regretted not getting a photo or better look.
Once I’d had my fill of the gorgeous red Cinnamon Teals, Doran and I continued our walk around the ponds. The Cinnamon Teal was bird no. 497 on my life list, and I was getting excited about the possibility of finding three more before we left. We continued making our way around the ponds, and it wasn’t long before I heard some activity in the thin screen of vegetation between the trail and the water. Quite a few songbirds were foraging in the shrubs, including a couple of Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Verdin, and White-crowned Sparrows. Then I heard a familiar buzzy call – it sounded like a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, familiar from my spring visits to Point Pelee, although I knew from checking eBird that this species was only a summer resident. However, the Black-tailed Gnatcatcher spends the winter in Las Vegas, and I spent some time tracking down a couple of these tiny, frantic little birds. I got good enough looks to identify them as gnatcatchers, though I was disappointed they looked just like our Blue-gray Gnatcatchers: males have a distinctive black cap, but only in spring. Still, I was happy to add it to my life list as bird no. 498!
On December 12, 2017 we visited the City of Henderson Bird Viewing Preserve. It encompasses nearly 100 acres of basins, lagoons and ponds and attracts a great number of water birds in the winter. This was definitely the best place for bird photography, as many ducks were swimming close to the water’s edge and plenty of songbirds were flitting in the vegetation along the trails.
Unfortunately my iPhone’s directions stopped short of getting us there, and we continued on the road east for a good number of kilometers before we realized we were lost. Fortunately we discovered this little spot at the Wells Trailhead of the Wetlands Park Nature Preserve while looking for a place to turn around. It had a great view of the Las Vegas Wash, a natural channel that carries storm water, urban runoff, and reclaimed water from the Las Vegas Valley into Lake Mead. The channel was filled with ducks, though we also saw a Great Blue Heron and some unidentified gulls flying west.
Most new or casual birders find the identification of flycatchers frustrating. Some are distinct enough in appearance to be easily identified, such as the black and white Eastern Kingbird and the Great Crested Flycatcher with its yellow belly and rich, rusty upperparts. The Eastern Phoebe pumps its tail, which is a great clue to its identity. I have the most difficulty with Eastern Wood-pewees (mostly when found in open areas – they breed in the woods) and Empidonax flycatchers, as they are confusingly similar in appearance. Empidonax flycatchers, or Empids for short, are brownish-gray above and white below, with white eye rings of varying sizes and two whitish wing bars. The only surefire way for me to identify them is to wait until they open their beak and sing – each flycatcher has a unique song, which makes things even easier as you don’t even need to get a great look at the bird.
On August 7th I decided to return to Mud Lake, a place I hadn’t visited in a few weeks. First, however, I stopped in at the storm water ponds to check if anything new had arrived. I saw two Northern Flickers flying over, a species I occasionally observe here, though not on every visit. Only two herons were present, a Great Blue Heron and a Black-crowned Night Heron. Three Barn Swallows were swooping over the water, and I found a young Common Yellowthroat lurking in the vegetation close to the water. Best of all, there were some new shorebirds present – two Solitary Sandpipers and a single Least Sandpiper!
By late July nesting season is over for many species and the newly fledged young are beginning to learn how to make their way in the world. Although the young birds are rapidly gaining their independence, their parents are still present, seeking out food sources and teaching their offspring how to forage on their own while avoiding predators and other dangers. I headed out to Stony Swamp one morning in late July and was surprised by how many different fledglings I found – sparrows, mainly, but also robins, Blue Jays and even a Downy Woodpecker.
I started the morning with a walk at the Beaver Trail, where I observed 25 species in total. A Ruby-throated Hummingbird was present in the parking lot, and I heard a pair of Alder Flycatchers in the marsh – this isn’t a species I hear often here anymore. I also heard a Common Gallinule in the marsh close to where a Belted Kingfisher was hanging out, though the kingfisher didn’t stay long when I arrived at the observation dock.