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Winter Finches at Algonquin Park

Barred Owl

On Family Day I accompanied Jon Ruddy’s Eastern Ontario Birding trip to Algonquin Park to look for winter finches and other Boreal specialties. As predicted in Ron Pittaway’s Winter Finch Forecast back in September, the winter of 2019-2020 was not an irruption year; most finch species stayed up north in the Boreal Forest given the abundance of mountain-ash berries, spruce cones and birch seed crops there. This meant that while berry-eaters such as Pine Grosbeak and Bohemian Waxwings remained on their breeding territories in the far north, Pine Siskins, Evening Grosbeaks, and both crossbill species were widespread across central Ontario – including the traditional winter finch hotspot, Algonquin Park.
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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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Algonquin Park: Return of the Canada Jay

Ruffed Grouse

On December 18th I accompanied Jon Ruddy’s Eastern Ontario Birding trip to Algonquin Park. This was an early Christmas present to myself as it’s one of my favourite parks in Ontario and I don’t get to go that often – it’s been almost two full years since the last time I’ve been. As usual, the goal was to find winter finches and Algonquin specialties such as Spruce Grouse, Black-backed Woodpecker, Boreal Chickadees and Canada Jays (formerly known as Gray Jays); we were excited when Jon told us just a few days earlier three Spruce Grouse had been photographed right in the parking lot of the Spruce Bog Boardwalk.

The drive down was pleasant; notable birds seen along the way included an American Kestrel perching on a wire near the town of Douglas and a juvenile Bald Eagle soaring above the car just past Barry’s Bay. When we got to the park and paid for our permits, the East Gate was quiet; we heard only a single chickadee calling in the trees.

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Return to Red Rock Canyon

Cactus Wren

Thursday was our last full day in Vegas. We had no plans that day, as we had hoped to fit in a day trip to the Grand Canyon, but the logistics of such a trip proved more difficult and elaborate than we had anticipated. After deliberating about where to spend our day, we chose to go back to the Red Rock Canyon for a “real” hike. First, however, we stopped in at the Visitor Center to look for the Cactus Wrens we had missed on our first trip. They like to feed on dead bugs on the parked cars, and are said to be easily found there. We parked in a spot well apart from the other cars, close to the edge of the desert, and wandered around the Visitor Center for a bit. By the time we got out we found a couple of birds in the scrub close to our car. Sure enough, they turned out to be the birds we were looking for!

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Las Vegas: A Trip to Red Rock Canyon

Western Bluebird

On our first morning in Las Vegas we woke up nice and early to meet the Red Rock Audubon Club at the Pine Creek Canyon Trail in Red Rock Canyon. I wanted to make the most of our trip, and since we had never been to the desert before, we wanted to go out with an experienced guide. I’d been eyeing the outings on the Red Rock Audubon Club website for a while, and this trip was exactly what I was looking for. It cost $7 to enter the park for the day, and the Pine Creek Canyon Trail is described as a three-mile, two-hour loop that crosses the open desert, vists an old homestead, and passes through a meadow before heading up into the canyon.

We ended up getting to the meeting point a couple of minutes late, as the road through the park is a one-way, 35 mph scenic loop with multiple look-outs and hiking trails branching off of it, and the one we wanted was – of course – near the end of the loop. In this it reminded me of Algonquin Park’s Highway 60 corridor, except the view was drastically different – I wished we had time to stop and take pictures of the dramatic Spring Mountains rising up from the floor of the Mojave Desert.

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Hello, birds of winter!

American Tree Sparrow

Our warm fall weather continued this weekend, with sunny blue skies and temperatures reaching above 20°C both days – it was 11°C higher than it should be this time of year. With the return of our rather late summer, it was a bit of a shock on Saturday to see that two of our common winter residents had arrived in the region: the Common Goldeneye, a diving duck that inhabits the ice-free portions of the Rideau and Ottawa Rivers all winter long, and the American Tree Sparrow, a small brown sparrow with a red cap that likes shrubby habitats and sometimes visits bird feeders in more rural areas.

I was still trying to bring my year list up to 200, and started the weekend off with a walk around the Eagleson storm water ponds. I was hoping for Cackling Goose, though a Greater White-fronted Goose would also have been nice – although much more rare than the diminutive Cackling Goose, it’s one I keep looking for every time large numbers of geese start gathering here before finally moving on. To my disappointment I found only three waterfowl species: Canada Goose, Mallard, and a few lingering Double-crested Cormorants. I was happy to see that the cormorants were still around, as every sighting could be the last of the year.

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Snippets from Late Summer

Late summer is a great time for birding. Shorebirds, flycatchers, and warblers which breed further north have moved into the area, while our resident breeding birds are preparing for their journey south. It’s a fantastic time to check out the woods and river for both residents and migrants before they leave for good. Personally, it’s one of my favourite times of year, especially as the summer weather tends to linger on into the end of September – unlike the fickle weather of May, you can go birding in shorts and sandals instead of gloves and winter coats. The diversity is just as excellent, and it is possible to find species that usually bypass Ottawa in the spring lingering here in the fall. Here are a few things I’ve found recently while out birding around the west end.

Great Black-backed Gull

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Fledgling Season

Swamp Sparrow

By late July nesting season is over for many species and the newly fledged young are beginning to learn how to make their way in the world. Although the young birds are rapidly gaining their independence, their parents are still present, seeking out food sources and teaching their offspring how to forage on their own while avoiding predators and other dangers. I headed out to Stony Swamp one morning in late July and was surprised by how many different fledglings I found – sparrows, mainly, but also robins, Blue Jays and even a Downy Woodpecker.

I started the morning with a walk at the Beaver Trail, where I observed 25 species in total. A Ruby-throated Hummingbird was present in the parking lot, and I heard a pair of Alder Flycatchers in the marsh – this isn’t a species I hear often here anymore. I also heard a Common Gallinule in the marsh close to where a Belted Kingfisher was hanging out, though the kingfisher didn’t stay long when I arrived at the observation dock.

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Costa Rica: Birding around the Resort

Great Kiskadee

Costa Rica operates on Central Standard Time. Being so close to the equator, however, it receives roughly 12 hours of daylight throughout the year; as such, it has no need for Daylight Saving Time, and doesn’t reset its clocks twice a year. This is quite unlike Ottawa, which fluctuates from about 8 hours of daylight at the December solstice to just under 16 hours at the June solstice. It was light enough to go birding around 5:30 am, and started getting dark around 6:30 pm. Costa Rica was two hours behind Ottawa time during our trip, and as a result of the time change, we were up earlier than usual. This made time seem to slow down, for the days seemed much longer, with plenty of hours to fill.

With my sleep issues I still woke up at my usual time each day, which meant I was wide awake by 3:30 or 4:00 am and couldn’t fall back asleep. As soon as it got light I went birding, sneaking out around 5:30 or 6:00 am almost every day we didn’t have any activities planned. We spent our first full day in Costa Rica on the resort, and almost right away I discovered a great birding spot right near our building.
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Rain and Flooding in Ottawa

Palm Warbler

After one of the wettest Aprils on record, both the Ottawa and Gatineau Rivers have burst their banks, causing extensive flooding that has affected hundreds of homes on both sides of the provincial border. A combination of snow melt flowing into the Ottawa River through its various tributaries and the high volume of rainfall this spring caused the water to rise faster than could be controlled by engineers at the various dams along the river. The Ottawa River is the highest it has been in decades, and neither I nor the long-time birders here have seen anything like it.

This month alone (now only seven days old) has seen over 100 mm of rain, with 45mm rain on May 1st, 40mm on Friday, and 20 mm yesterday. In the 24-hour period between Saturday afternoon and Sunday afternoon, the Ottawa River rose 17cm, and, according to the Ottawa River Regulation Planning Board, is expected to rise a further 5cm before its peak on Monday. A state of emergency has been declared in Gatineau, where the Canadian Forces was on hand to help police reach difficult to access areas. On the Ontario side, Cumberland and Constance Bay were the two areas affected most, followed by Britannia, Dunrobin, Fitzroy Harbour and MacLarens Landing.

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