Predators Close to Home

Snowy Owl

Snowy Owl

Those in my friend and birding circles know I have been dealing with serious health issues since last fall…serious enough to have to take a medical leave of absence from work, and leave me feeling unwell enough to get outside birding for much of that time. The timing could not have been worse as the Omicron variant hit our region in late December and peaked in late January, its insane transmission rate leaving me feeling vulnerable every time I had to leave the house. I stayed home except to go to a medical appointments, despite many offers from friends to go birding, as I couldn’t risk catching COVID while my health was still fragile. However, things are improving on both fronts: the Omicron wave is receding, and I had surgery five weeks ago, and am slowly regaining my strength and mobility. If ever there was a time to be out of commission, this is it: winter is my least favourite season, with its bitterly cold days, icy trails, and lack of flowers and insects. Winter is more a time for chasing than exploring, and while we’ve had a couple of great rarities turn up, I was in no condition to go after them myself.

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Nova Scotia 2021: Grand Pré and Cape Split PP

Semipalmated Sandpiper

Semipalmated Sandpiper

As my fiancé and I were working remotely during our week at Scot’s Bay, we did not have a lot of time to do much hiking or birding. Poor weather, especially on our one free day – the rainy Monday of the August long weekend – further reduced the number of opportunities to spend much time outdoors. Still, we were able to visit a couple of places during our week at Cape Split. The first was a new spot for us, Cape Split Provincial Park, which was intriguing enough to warrant a return trip. We stopped in briefly on Monday, August 2nd ahead of the rain just to check it out. The parking lot was busy with avian activity, including a Ruby-throated Hummingbird checking out the flowers, a pair of Bald Eagles (one adult and one juvenile) flying over the coast, a Blue-headed Vireo singing, a Common Raven “quarking” in a tree, and a couple of Song Sparrows chipping at us from the vegetation surrounding the parking lot.

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Nova Scotia 2021: Scots Bay

Seashell on the Sea Shore

Seashell on the Sea Shore – Scot’s Bay

On Saturday, July 31st my fiancé and I took two days to make the long drive to Nova Scotia. We planned to stay two weeks, although we were both working remotely at a cottage on the shore of Scot’s Bay, Kings County during the first week and used the second week as a true vacation week in Greenwood. By then there were no restrictions to enter Quebec or New Brunswick, although we had to show proof of vaccines and a travel permit at the Nova Scotia border. Once inside the border we were still subject to gathering regulations, mask mandates, and contact tracing protocols to dine indoor at restaurants, something we hadn’t done in Ontario since last fall.

Scot’s Bay is a community on Cape Split. The cape juts out into the Bay of Fundy, separating it from the Minas Basin. This continuation of Nova Scotia’s North Mountain range is 7 kilometres long and ranges between several kilometres to several dozen metres in width. It reaches 200 metres above sea-level at the scenic Look-Off halfway along the highway, and terminates in the relatively new (2019) Cape Split Provincial Park at the end. It also has a second provincial park, Blomidon, on the Minas Basin side, and a tiny access point to the beach on the Bay of Fundy side called Scot’s Bay Provincial Park. This is where I got my lifer Sanderling in 2008.

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June Atlassing Highlights

Blue-winged Teal (male)

Blue-winged Teal (male)

June is my favourite month of the year. This is the month when most insects begin to emerge, their bright wings bringing life and colour to forests, meadows, ponds and backyard gardens. Birds are in full song, and the air is fragrant with all the flowers in bloom. While butterflies and dragonflies become my main focus this time of year, this month I had a second agenda: to continue to look for evidence of breeding for the third Ontario Breeding Bird Atlas. Since I am still working from home as a result of the pandemic, I devoted my morning weekday walks to looking for birds and my longer weekend excursions to looking for all types of wildlife, particularly dragonflies. I thought birding would become boring once migration ended and the resident birds settled down into the more predictable routine of nesting season, but to my surprise I was wrong.

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My first Christmas Bird Count

Pine Grosbeak

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!

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Unusual Overwintering Birds

Although it’s been a quiet winter for Boreal finches, Black-backed Woodpeckers, American Three-toed Woodpeckers, and other vagrant or irruptive birds here in Ottawa, we’ve still had a few interesting species overwintering here. A Red-shouldered Hawk was discovered at the Trail Road Landfill on January 25, 2020 and has remained in the area ever since – while most fly south in the fall, this species has been known to stay the winter here on occasion. In fact, my lifer Red-shouldered Hawk was an overwintering bird hanging around near Huntmar and Old Carp Roads in the winter of 2007-08. Their winter diet depends on mostly small mammals, although they may occasionally eat smaller birds such as sparrows, starlings, and doves. This would make the landfill an excellent place for a Red-shouldered Hawk to spend the winter; there are enough mice and small mammals to keep several Red-tailed Hawks well-fed, as well as a huge flock of starlings that spend the colder months here feeding on the remains of the sumac berries and landfill refuse. This winter several sparrows have been seen along the tree-line to the east of the dump, including the usual American Tree Sparrows, Dark-eyed Juncos, and two overwintering Song Sparrows.

I tried for the Red-shouldered Hawk twice after my return from Las Vegas, both on February 15th: I had no luck in the morning, so I returned later in the afternoon and spotted a car parked along the edge of the road. When I pulled over I scanned the area and noticed it perching on a post inside in the dump. This was the best view of a perching Red-shouldered Hawk I’ve had yet; it would be the best photo I’ve ever taken of one, except for the fence in the way – the snow banks were too deep for me to get close enough to put my camera against an opening in the chain link fence.

Red-shouldered Hawk

Although I’ve tried a few times to see it since, I never did find it again. They breed in the Ottawa area, returning in late March from their winter territories, although they are difficult to find. Stony Swamp is a repeat site for these small hawks; I’ve found an occupied nest once, and have seen birds flying over the pond at Sarsparilla Trail multiple times.

Carolina Wrens, on the other hand, are at the extreme northern limit of their range here in Ottawa. This species has been attempting to move further and further north, but often succumb to the harsh Canadian winters without making any real progress. Mud Lake is a repeat spot for this species, and indeed it is where I saw my life bird back in October 2011. One has been overwintering at Mud Lake again this winter; it was seen in the woods until late November 2019, went unreported for a month, and then was re-found on January 1, 2020. I was one of the people who saw it on New Year’s Day; the loud chattering sound caught my attention and I was eventually able to see this tiny dynamo perching out in the open. It has been present up until now, surviving a winter that has seen a lot of snow but very few really cold days (the dreaded Polar Vortex was noticeably absent this winter and was not missed). On February 23rd I caught up with it again in the same general area of the woods on the west side, which is where I’ve had all my Carolina Wrens now that I think about it. Once again I heard it before I saw it, and when it popped up on a tree stump to announce its general annoyance with the world I snapped a quick picture.

Carolina Wren

Just as quickly it flew across the trail and landed next to a huge fallen tree where it weaved in and out of its shadow before disappearing beneath a cluster of branches near the crown.

Birds like these have helped keep the winter boredom at bay. While they may not be able to compete with the birds seen at a tropical destination in the south, they are often difficult to see in the Ottawa area any time of year, and it’s great to get them for my year list now – and to get such great views!

Birding Las Vegas, Part 1: My Most-Wanted Species

Pygmy Nuthatch

Doran and I flew to Las Vegas on Saturday, February 1st for a week in the desert. This was our second time there, but our flights did not go smoothly. Our 7:00 am flight was supposed to land in Toronto at 8:15, then our second flight was supposed to leave Toronto at 9:30. However our plane in Ottawa had been sitting at the gate all night, and we needed to some time to de-ice it. This took about 20 minutes. Then, when we arrived in Toronto we needed to wait a another 20 minutes on the tarmac as another plane had taken our gate because of a medical emergency. We worried about not having time to clear customs before our second flight boarded, but as it turns out this plane was late, too, due to a “mechanical issue.” Then that plane, too, needed de-icing, so it wasn’t until after 12:00 that we got airborne. The strangest part was, after we showed our passports and boarding passes to the flight attendants at the gate, we were quizzed by US security people before entering the jet bridge – where were we going? Did we know the limits on how much cash we could bring into the country? How much were we bringing? When did we book our flights? We hadn’t encountered anything like this before; even my boss who had recently traveled to the U.S. thought it was weird. In any event, this is the third Air Canada trip in a row where we’ve had annoying delays, so I don’t think I will book with them again anytime soon.

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New Year’s Hawks

Cooper’s Hawk

The year 2020 has arrived, and it’s a new decade as well as a new year. Usually it’s only the excitement of starting a brand new list from scratch that gets me going out in January, so on the first day of 2020 I got out early to see how many bird species I could find. As usual, I planned to check a couple of different habitats to maximize the number of potential species; my strategy consists of birding in open farmland, forests, along open water, with a stop at the local landfill. In the past couple of years I’ve only averaged about 17 or 18 species, which is not a particularly high number. My best New Year’s Day was back in 2017 where I counted 26 species – that year I visited Shirley’s Bay, Mud Lake, Jack Pine Trail, the Trail Road landfill, and the Eagleson ponds. The best birds of that day included Bald Eagle and White-throated Sparrow at Mud Lake, Horned Lark on Rushmore, and Gray Partridge on Eagleson. I also tallied 26 species back in 2012, where an unexpected Northern Flicker at Mud Lake, a Red-winged Blackbird at the Hilda Road feeders, and Glaucous and Great Black-backed Gulls at the landfill were the best birds of the day.

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The Birds of Edmonton

Boreal Chickadee

On September 18th I flew to Edmonton to visit my sister for a few days. Alberta is not a new province for me; my family had lived on an acreage outside of Ardrossan, which is east of Edmonton and Sherwood Park, for seven years from 1989 to 1996. As I was just teenager at the time, enduring all the drama and angst of high school, I had had no interest in nature back then – which is really too bad, as we’d lived on a small lot with a forest behind our house and a slough (a vegetated pond) across the road. When my parents and I moved back in 1996 – they to southern Ontario, via Tweed, and me and my fiancé to Ottawa – my sister remained behind, although it wasn’t until 2012 when I returned to attend her wedding.

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The Hawks of Stony Swamp

Northern Goshawk

Stony Swamp in Ottawa’s west end is home to a variety of different flora and fauna. The trails are popular among families for hand-feeding the chickadees and among birders for finding Black-backed Woodpeckers and finches such as Pine Siskins in the winter. There are many different ecosystems within the conservation area – such as rocky alvars, ponds, marshes, streams, deciduous and coniferous forests – which makes this one of the most biodiverse conservation areas within the city.

Despite the large number of birds that breed, overwinter, or migrate through Stony Swamp each year, it is relatively under-birded. The closest trail is only five minutes from my home in Kanata South, so I spend a lot of time within the conservation area – particularly in the warmer months. However, I very rarely come across other birders or photographers on the weekends, probably because it’s not a migrant trap like Mud Lake – the birds are spread out more, making them more difficult to find. Still, the trails are worth checking for pockets of warblers in the spring or flocks of finches in the winter, in addition to all the birds that breed here in the summer: Virginia Rails, Pied-Billed Grebes, Eastern Towhees, Field Sparrows, Swamp Sparrows, Black-throated Green Warblers, Black-and-white Warblers, Eastern Phoebes, and so much more.

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