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. Continue reading →
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. Continue reading →
On Saturday, April 30th I took the train to Kitchener to visit my mother and step-father, and on Sunday, May 1st we drove down to Point Pelee. We weren’t able to check in at the Best Western just outside of the park until the afternoon, so we headed to the Tip as soon as we arrived at 11:00. The weather was not cooperative – it was cold and overcast, with the same north winds I’d experienced in Ottawa. North winds in May are never good for migration; birds trying to fly across the Great Lakes will stay on the south side of the lakes until the winds shift from out of the south, giving them a boost across the water. Of course, north winds could also mean that any birds already in the park would likely stick around before continuing north, but this did not seem to be the case.
On January 22nd and 25th I returned to the New Edinburgh area to look for the Summer Tanager first discovered on December 25, 2015. It was seen in the vicinity of Avon Lane as late as January 23rd, according to eBird, and as I had discovered that it didn’t take long to get there by bus from Elgin Street, I headed over there twice during the work week to see if I could spot it.
Unfortunately, because I was on my lunch break, I didn’t have much time to spend looking for it. I failed to see it on both attempts, and on Monday it quickly became apparent why: a huge Cooper’s Hawk was perching in one of the large trees that overlook the yards behind Queen Victoria Street, keeping an eye on the feeder. Although I was disappointed at first that the Summer Tanager wasn’t present, I started to feel relieved instead, for I didn’t want the rarity to become lunch for the hawk.