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 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.
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:
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!