Archives

Spring Arrives in midst of the Pandemic

Mourning Cloak

It’s been another slow spring; although the snow was quick to melt this year without any flooding, it took until the last week of April before temperatures reached a daily high of more than 10°C, and not once did Ottawa reach 20°C – in fact our highest temperature last month was 16.8°C (normally the highest temperature falls in between 20.7°C and 28.5°C). This is only the eighth time since records began in 1870 that April temperatures stayed below 17°C. Migrants have been slow to trickle in, however, this may be a reflection of the greatly reduced number of trails and habitats I visit rather than the actual number of birds passing through, as eBird sightings have been steady despite the cooler temperatures and persistent north winds. Despite the weather and the smaller area in which I’ve been birding, I’ve had some good mammal sightings in the past few weeks, and have seen my first butterflies of the season.

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October Summary

Wood Duck

October is a month of transition – we leave the hot days of summer behind (although September didn’t feel like summer this year, as the sultry 25-plus-degree temperatures of years past never materialized) and enter true fall, enjoying those crisp sunny days where the north wind carries a hint of winter and the brilliant orange and red foliage slowly starts to carpet the ground. The sun casts longer shadows as its zenith drops lower and lower in the sky each day, and the shorter days become evident when I have to leave for work in the dark in the morning. The birds, too, are transitioning, as most of the insect-eaters are now gone and the bulk of the seed-eaters – mainly sparrows – start moving through. It’s not going to be a good year for seeing finches in the south, as Ron Pittaway’s Winter Finch Forecast indicates bumper crops up north will keep the crossbills, redpolls and Pine Grosbeaks on their summer territory. Waterfowl and shorebirds are still moving through, although heavy rain toward the end of the month obliterated the remaining shorebird habitat along the Ottawa River – so much for the flocks of Dunlin and White-rumped Sandpipers I was hoping to find at Andrew Haydon Park again.

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Dragonflies of the Dominican

Tawny Pennant

The Dominican Republic is home to 19 damselfly species and 48 dragonfly species. Of these species, four damselflies and three dragonflies are endemic to the island of Hispaniola – that is, they are found nowhere else on the planet. I did not know this when I went on my trip, however, as an amateur odonate enthusiast I certainly hoped to see a few colourful tropical species! I was a bit worried that there wouldn’t be very many odes within the resort itself, as I had heard that the resorts of Punta Cana regularly spray to keep mosquito populations down, and this would of course have an effect on all insect life breeding in the ponds and natural waterways where the chemicals are introduced. On our first two days at the resort I saw very few dragonflies – only two flying by without stopping to perch. On our third day I discovered the swamp at the top end of the resort when Manny Jimenes picked us up outside the security gate for our excursion to the National Park of the East. As our fourth day was spent entirely outside the resort (and I didn’t see any odonates on either excursion, although I’m sure there must have been some along the Chavon River), it wasn’t until our fifth day that I was able to spend more time walking up and down the road cutting through the swamp to look for odes.

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A new life bird on the resort

Hispaniolan Parrot

Doran and I didn’t have any excursions planned for the rest of the week, so we took it easy on the last three days – swimming at the beach, dining at the restaurants, and even doing a couples massage. I went for my usual walks in the morning and afternoons, and although I had already gotten 19 new life birds on the trip, I kept hoping to find something new, or at least get photos of ones I had missed. I kept checking the western edge of the resort to see if I could find the Hispaniolan Lizard-Cuckoo again, as well as the flowers near the souvenir shops for the Antillean Mango. I also hoped to find some dragonflies to photograph near the swamp, although I had heard that they sprayed the resorts for mosquitoes and wasn’t expecting much ode life if this was true.

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Catalina Island

Brown Pelican

On Wednesday Doran and I took part in an excursion to Catalina Island. Our pick-up time wasn’t until 8:20 am so we had some time to kill after breakfast, and I immediately suggested walking up to the security gate again to check out the swamp. We saw the usual White-cheeked Pintails in the pool again, as well as three more in the swamp. Antillean Palm-swifts were flitting through the air, and large flocks of white egrets were flying toward the coast – I couldn’t tell if they were Snowy Egrets or Great Egrets, but it was amazing to see so many. There were probably between 15 and 30 in each flock, with at least four or five flocks flying over.

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Birds of Early Fall

Winter Wren

By the end of September there is a change in the air. There are fewer warbler species and more sparrows and thrushes and kinglets as the temperature starts to fall and the nights grow longer than the days. On the last Saturday in September I started my day with a walk at the Eagleson ponds, where only a few Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs remained after the recent rains caused the water levels to rise. The Great Black-backed Gull, three heron species, and a single kingfisher were still present as well. About 150 Canada Geese were swimming throughout the ponds; these were new, as only one or two families had stayed the summer. The only Red-winged Blackbirds I saw were all in a single flock of about two dozen birds flying over, and while Song Sparrows were still numerous, the first Dark-eyed Junco had arrived. A single Ruby-crowned Kinglet, two Yellow-rumped Warblers, and two Blackpoll Warblers were signs that the season was changing.

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Herons etc.

Black-crowned Night Heron (sub-adult)

During the August long weekend I visited the Eagleson storm water ponds a couple of times to check out the shorebird habitat – the southern pond is starting to dry up, leaving a huge swath of the smelly, muddy pond bottom exposed. The usual Spotted Sandpipers and Killdeer were present, but at least four Lesser Yellowlegs, one Greater Yellowlegs, and five Least Sandpipers had joined them. It’s still early in shorebird migration, so I expect the diversity will increase as the season progresses.

The number of herons hunting at the ponds has also increased lately, which is typical this time of year as the birds disperse from their breeding grounds to look for good feeding areas. At least two Great Blue Herons, two Great Egrets, and three Black-crowned Night Herons are around; I haven’t seen any Green Herons yet so far, but expect they will show up shortly. Because there are so many herons here, and because they perch and feed out in the open, they make excellent targets of study; I shouldn’t be surprised that they are starting to draw the attention of local photographers. I ran into one this weekend specifically to photograph the egrets and herons; doubtless there are others.

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In the neighbourhood: Kristina Kiss Park

Monarch

Late this past winter I discovered a new place for birding in my own neighbourhood: Kristina Kiss Park. It really isn’t much of a park; there’s a soccer field at the northern end (Kristina Kiss is a famous Canadian soccer player from Ottawa), a playground at the southern end, and the two are connected by a footpath that runs next to what I consider its most interesting feature: a channel of water that eventually drains into the Eagleson storm water ponds. Last winter I was driving through the area one day when I noticed what looked like an ice-covered pond behind the soccer field. Sure enough, there is a pond in the northeastern corner of the park according to Google maps. When March came and the ice melted, I found my first Killdeer of the year here, and I thought it could be interesting for shorebirds later in migration. However, as the spring progressed, the pond dried up and revealed itself as a large square patch of gravel with no apparent purpose but to collect the run-off from rainwater and snow-melt. The water channel that runs between the footpath and the houses on the next street over turned out to be more interesting, though it was choked with cattails in most places – there were muskrat push-ups scattered throughout, and when the spring returned, I found many of the more common city birds nesting within the vicinity: House Finches, robins, grackles, Red-winged Blackbirds, even a pair of Tree Swallows nesting in a nest box in one of the backyards!

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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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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