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The Gray Jay: Canada’s unofficial National Bird

Gray Jay

Gray Jay (2012)

Unless you’ve been committed yourself to complete isolation from the internet and news media for the past few days (in which case you probably aren’t reading my blog anyway), you have probably heard that on November 16, 2016, Canadian Geographic selected the Gray Jay as Canada’s National Bird. While this decision is not official – it needs government approval for that – the selection followed almost two years of debate, including an online round of voting open to the public, and then the choosing of the the national bird from the top five contenders by Canadian Geographic. The opinions of ornithologists, conservationists, cultural experts and indigenous peoples also played a large part in choosing the Gray Jay over the other finalists, which included iconic birds such as the Common Loon, Snowy Owl, Canada Goose, and Black-capped Chickadee. However, three of these are already provincial birds, and one of these is largely considered a pest (despite how heart-meltingly cute its goslings are).

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Purple Finches and other Spring Migrants

Purple Finch

Purple Finch

After seeing my first Red-winged Blackbirds from the bus on Wednesday, March 9th, I was eager to get out on the weekend and look for more. Saturday morning was mild but gloomy; not a terrific day for photography, but a good day for getting out and seeing what was around. I stopped by the ponds on Eagleson first to look for ducks, and was surprised to hear not one, but two Song Sparrows singing as soon as I got out of the car. It was only March 12th; although it seemed early for them to be back on territory, I enjoyed hearing their jubilant songs after the long, silent winter. Red-winged Blackbirds were back as well, calling from the tops of the trees and adding to the spring chorus. There were no new ducks on the pond, just the usual mallards and Canada Geese.

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Waterfowl Season

White-winged Scoter

White-winged Scoter

November has arrived, and as is usual for Ottawa this time of year, most of the migrant passerines and shorebirds have departed while waterfowl numbers are starting to build up. Canada Geese have been present in large numbers for several weeks now, and east of the city the spectacle of Snow Geese is something to behold – up to 100,000 are present off of Highway 138 near the Lafleche dump (where the Gyrfalcon was present last winter). Ontario’s first recorded Pink-footed Goose was found among this flock last weekend, and careful observers have also picked out Cackling, Ross’s and Greater-fronted White Geese as well for a total of seven species in the same flock.

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Port of the Islands

Dolphins in the marina

Dolphins

We left Everglades National Park and the Homestead area to travel to our next destination, the Port of the Islands Everglades Adventure Resort located on the Tamiami Trail about 15 minutes east of Naples. Upon entering the Tamiami Trail we noticed a canal running parallel to the north side of the road bordered by a large dyke; because of the number of egrets, Anhingas and other waterbirds flying in and out of the area, we assumed there was a large wetland just out of view. Indeed, there is a large water conservation area to the north of the highway, which historically provided the Everglades with a steady supply of fresh water.

When the Tamiami Trail was built in the 1920s, it created an enormous dam across the shallow, 70-mile-wide River of Grass and blocked the main corridor of fresh-flowing water into Everglades National Park. Although 19 culverts built beneath the Tamiami Trail permit some flow of water, the amount of water entering the Everglades is much diminished. Unnaturally low water levels for over 90 years have significantly damaged sawgrass marshes, tree islands, fish reproduction, wading-bird nesting sites, and the habitats of many endangered species unique to the Everglades. The southerly-flowing fresh water no longer counterbalances the seepage of salt water inland, upsetting the delicate balance of nature. In order to increase the water’s flow, one bridge has already been built to replace a mile of the old road, but it will take years for the remaining 5.5 miles’ worth of bridges to be built and assist in the restoration of the Everglades.

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Changing Seasons

Blue Jay

Blue Jay

The last few weeks have brought yet another change in migration. The only fall migrants that seem to be around these days are water birds; the late-season land birds, such as Ruby-crowned Kinglets, White-throated Sparrows and White-crowned Sparrows have all gone, while winter birds such as American Tree Sparrows and Snow Buntings have arrived. There are still many robins, juncos, and Golden-crowned Kinglets around, though these may stay the winter if they can find enough food.

I spend a lot of time birding along the Ottawa River in late October and November. A good variety of water birds can be found on Lac Deschenes this time of year, and birding anywhere between Bate Island and Shirley’s Bay can produce good numbers of loons, grebes, geese, scoters, and diving ducks. Many dabbling ducks can still be found in the smaller ponds, and it is worth stopping in at Sarsaparilla Trail, the ponds at Andrew Haydon Park, or the Richmond Lagoons to see what’s around.

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Enjoying Algonquin’ s Fall Colours

Shadow Darner

Shadow Darner

Deb and I went to Algonquin Park last Sunday to enjoy some birds, fall colours, and late-season odonates. The fall colours were said to be at their peak, and with the temperature expected to reach a beautiful, sunny 20°C, we couldn’t have asked for a better day. Unfortunately the great weather enticed several other carloads and busloads of people to visit, so the park was the busiest we had ever seen it. Police were stopping people before they drove into the park to remind them of the speed limit (only 80 km/h in the park, and 50 km/h at the gate), and the parking lots along Highway 60 were full of cars – most even had a tour bus or two parked at the entrance. Some trails (such as the Lookout Trail and Peck Lake Trail) were so busy the cars had spilled out of the parking lot and were parked along the narrow shoulder of Highway 60.

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The Mustelids of Algonquin Park

Pine Marten

Pine Marten

Deb and I went to Algonquin Park on Saturday, and we couldn’t have picked a better day to go. We drove west under a bright blue sky, and while it was only -4°C when we left, the warm sunshine quickly heated the day to a balmy 8°C. We started the day with a drive up Opeongo Road which was an adventure in itself – the road was badly plowed with deep ruts, and the rising temperature made the surface slippery. We didn’t see or hear anything until we got to the gate, where we found piles of sunflower seeds left on various snow banks. Several Black-capped Chickadees, American Red Squirrels and Blue Jays were eating their fill; a single Gray Jay was also looking for handouts, and spent most of its time approaching the people coming and going rather than sampling the seeds left in the snow. Three Common Redpolls also flew in, while a single Pine Grosbeak seemed content to pick up grit from the parking lot. Then I heard a Boreal Chickadee calling from the edge of the parking area. His song is a slower, raspier version of the Black-capped Chickadee’s chick-a-dee-dee-dee. Deb managed to find it bouncing among the branches of a spruce tree, a beautiful little bird dressed in rufous and brown.

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