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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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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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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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The Henderson Bird Viewing Preserve, Part 1

Cinnamon Teal (male)

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.

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Monarch vs. Viceroy

Monarch

On the last Sunday in June I drove over to the airport to continue my quest for year birds. I had six target species, and figured I would be doing well if I managed to see only three of them: Eastern Bluebird, Indigo Bunting, Grasshopper Sparrow, Vesper Sparrow, Black-billed Cuckoo, and Mourning Warbler. The Eastern Bluebird and Indigo Bunting were probably the easiest targets, while the cuckoo and the Mourning Warbler were the most difficult – I had only heard these species around the trails once before, and would be happy if I heard them again. I usually hear or see Grasshopper Sparrows on every visit, while Vesper Sparrows are hit-and-miss. The day was warm and sunny, so I was looking forward to seeing some butterflies and dragonflies, too.

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Backyard Birds

Cooper's Hawk

Cooper’s Hawk

The temperature dropped this weekend. With the sun rising on temperatures as low as -10°C, I didn’t feel like rushing out at daybreak to go birding. It usually takes some time for me to adjust to the cold, and after last week’s milder weather I wasn’t quite ready to bundle up in five or six layers. On Saturday I did some shopping but spent most of the day watching the birds at my feeder. During the work week, it’s dark when I leave in the morning, and dark when I get home, so I have no idea what goes on in my backyard during the day. On Saturday I was happy to have four or five Blue Jays descend upon my feeder and threw some peanuts onto the patio to keep them happy. Although they visit my yard regularly during the fall to fatten up on the peanuts I give them, they usually become scarce once the snow arrives. I also had five on November 12th, so it appears a family group is visiting together. Two juncos, five chickadees, four House Sparrows, a goldfinch, and two Mourning Doves were also in my yard or visible in the neighbour’s.

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Interspecies Disputes

Spotted Jewelweed (aka Touch-me-not)

Spotted Jewelweed (aka Touch-me-not)

Labour Day weekend is here, and in my view, it is the best birding long weekend of the year – although Victoria Day comes close, by then songbird migration is mostly over, and high water levels in the spring mean that there are fewer shorebird species around places like Shirley’s Bay and Andrew Haydon Park. At the beginning of September, however, lots of different kinds of birds are passing through, and the weather is still very warm, so there are more insects around, too.

Yesterday morning I decided to head out early as I was hoping to beat the crowds of dog-walkers, wind-surfers, joggers, etc. to the mudflats at Ottawa Beach. It was only 9°C when I left, with a few fog patches in the low-lying areas, but when I arrived at Ottawa Beach at 6:40am I found only two other people – a photographer and another birder just walking in. A small group of shorebirds was foraging along the shore, and when I set up my scope I was happy to see a Sanderling (an Ottawa year bird), a Pectoral Sandpiper, and half a dozen Semipalmated Plovers.
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