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A Storm of Warblers

Palm Warbler

I usually take the second week of May off every year, and head south to spend time birding Point Pelee National Park with my mother. I was unable to make the trip this year, but as I needed a break from work and a change of scenery I spent three nights in Westport instead (more to follow in a separate post). Spending time at Murphy’s Point Provincial Park, Frontenac Provincial Park, and Foley Mountain Conservation Area was fantastic, but unlike Point Pelee, these areas are not migration hotspots or migrant traps, and I had to work hard to get as many species as I did. As a result, I wasn’t expecting much when I returned to Ottawa on Thursday, but it seemed the floodgates had finally opened and the birds were moving north in large numbers. I went out Friday morning, and although the temperature hadn’t improved – the day was overcast and the temperature was still below normal for this time of year – the birds must have been getting anxious to get back to their breeding grounds, for the variety of birds at the Eagleson ponds was amazing.
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The Winter Doldrums

Northern Pintail

The winter doldrums hit early, and hit hard. After a late start to winter, there were two feet of snow on the ground by Christmas, and by New Year’s Day we were in the grip of a week-long deep freeze with temperatures rising only as high as -17°C during the day – most of the time we were right around -20°C. From then on we suffered the usual bitter cold/messy thaw/winter storm cycle that characterizes our Ottawa winter throughout January and February. While a good number of Snowy Owls were present in the region, there were no winter finches, no Bohemian Waxwings, no northern woodpeckers, and no unusual owls or raptors (i.e. Boreal Owl, Gyrfalcon) to add excitement to the birding scene. Less and less I found a reason to go out, even on those weekends when it wasn’t snowing/raining or bitterly cold, and I lost the motivation to keep a winter list or work on my year list – anything that’s in the first two months of 2018 will still be around when the weather warms up in April.

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Return to Sunset Park

Ross’s Goose

On Wednesday we returned to Sunset Park, as it was only a 15-minute drive from our hotel. I wanted to check the undeveloped desert dune system for more desert birds, and wasn’t disappointed. Although I didn’t get any new life birds, I did get a nice photo of a Greater Roadrunner, perhaps the bird I most wanted to see on the trip. A male Phainopepla and a male Anna’s Hummingbird were also great finds, though both were too far for decent photos.

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Las Vegas in December: Sunset Park

American Coot

American Coot

Doran and I spent a week in Las Vegas from December 9-15, 2017 to see some shows and do some birding. We’d been planning this trip for a while, and I was excited because (a) I’ve never been to the American southwest before; and (b) I was only 19 species away from hitting 500 species on my life list. I felt I had a reasonably good chance; the target list I generated from eBird for Clark County during the month of December showed that there were 15 species with a frequency of more than 10%, and 37 species with a frequency greater than 1%. The top 15 included three birds on my “most wanted” list, namely, Cinnamon Teal, the only new duck species I could expect; Phainopepla, a desert bird I’d never heard of until one showed up in Brampton, ON in the winter of 2009; and Great Roadrunner, because I grew up watching the Bugs Bunny show and really wanted to see what one looked like in real life.
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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

November Rarities

Black-throated Gray Warbler

November is a great month for finding rare birds in Ottawa. The shortening days, dropping temperatures, and unexpected weather systems can all result in birds moving around, and this time of year it’s not uncommon for younger birds to wander or be blown off course. The past few weeks have been exciting, with a Razorbill on the Ottawa River from October 30-31st, a flyby Northern Gannet going up the river on November 12th, and an Anna’s Hummingbird in Carleton Place all being reported. On November 2nd – the day that the temperature jumped from 6°C to 13°C as just such a weather system dropped almost 30mm of rain on the city – an unlikely songbird found itself in Ottawa. A young Black-throated Gray Warbler was discovered at the Britannia Conservation Area, aka Mud Lake, Ottawa’s mega hotspot for rarities, by Bruce Di Labio. This tiny warbler normally lives west of the Rocky Mountains and spends the winters in central Mexico and is not supposed to be anywhere near Ottawa.

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Fall Surprises

Hudsonian Godwit

So far October’s been a great month for birding. On Friday, October 6th I stopped in at the Eagleson storm water ponds after work and was surprised to see a Snow Goose in among all the Canada Geese. There were only about 300 geese on the pond, so it was easy to spot the white one among all the regular dark geese. Snow Geese show up occasionally on the ponds during migration, but so infrequently that any sighting is cause for excitement. Normally large flocks pass through the region east of the city, with tens or hundreds of thousands seen in the fields south of Casselman. Only the few odd stragglers appear in the west end, though once I saw a flock of about 200 on the grassy hill near the Moodie Drive Quarry!

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