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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Escaping the Snow

Snowy Owl

It amazes me that just 40 minutes down Highway 416 a meteorological line exists to divide the snowy north from the more moderate south. Once you drive south past Bishop Mills the snow-laden fields give way to a landscape of brown grass and barren soil. I had the opportunity to spend some time birding south of the snow line yesterday*, and while Amherst Island may not have the warmth or turquoise waters of the Caribbean, it has something much better – an amazing number and variety of birds of prey not found anywhere else in eastern Ontario.

Jon Ruddy of Eastern Ontario Birding led a tour there to see some of the raptors and owls making their home there this winter. Meadow Voles are at the peak of their cycle on Amherst Island this winter, and this abundance is what has attracted the more than one hundred birds of prey to the island. The weather was cooperative, with a high of 5°C, partly cloudy skies, and no wind. This is extremely unusual for the island – the water was like glass, something I can’t recall seeing before.
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The Right Place at the Right Time

Long-tailed Duck

The toughest thing about birding – and the thing that makes it so addictive – is that most really good bird sightings or good birding days are a matter of luck: being in the right place at the right time. It’s one thing to know that Mud Lake is usually the best place to find Carolina Wrens here in Ottawa, that Northern Goshawks and Least Bitterns breed in Stony Swamp, or that Spruce Grouse are regularly seen at the Spruce Bog Trail in Algonquin Park, but it’s another thing altogether to actually find or observe these species when they are there. Birding, too, is much tougher these days than it was in the 1960s when most bird species were much more abundant than they are today – most new birders have heard stories about huge flocks of Evening Grosbeaks descending on the city in the winter 40 or 50 years ago and cleaning out the bird feeders in a matter of hours. Sadly, their numbers have declined sharply since those days; as of today I have observed about six Evening Grosbeaks total in the city of Ottawa since I started birding in 2006 – and those six birds were found only on three different occasions. It’s much harder to find birds when their numbers aren’t high to begin with, which makes luck so much more important if you are looking for a particular species or just looking to add something new to your year/life/county list. Sometimes you get lucky and find what you are looking for; sometimes you get lucky by finding something you totally did not expect to see that day or in that location. It’s these occasions that are so rewarding, especially after many a fruitless and frustrating outing where the bird didn’t show, or all you could find were starlings and maybe a crow.

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A Slow Start to Spring

Common Grackle

By the end of March temperatures were back to seasonal again, with daily highs between 6 and 8°C. Then it got cold again in early April, with snow in the first week. The birds were coming back, though, and with a long Easter weekend right at the beginning of the month, I was able to get out and spend some time looking for migrants.

On Good Friday (March 30th) I counted 20 species at the Eagleson ponds, including at least five Song Sparrows, two American Tree Sparrows, one Dark-eyed Junco, and eight robins. Blackbirds were back in good numbers; I observed at least five male Red-winged Blackbirds and 15 Common Grackles! In the water, a male Common Merganser had joined the five Hooded Mergansers – two males and a female were swimming in the northern pond while a male and female were swimming together in the southern pond.

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