This year marks the start of a five-year breeding bird survey for the third Ontario Breeding Bird Atlas, which is a collaboration between Birds Canada, the Canadian Wildlife Service, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, the Ontario Field Ornithologists, and Ontario Nature. Approximately 300 bird species breed in our province, and the goal of the atlas is to map the distribution and relative abundance of these species by looking for evidence of breeding for as many species as possible. By conducting surveys every 20 years researchers are able to determine which species are expanding their range, which ones are shrinking, which species are increasing in abundance, and which ones are declining. Although data collection began on January 1, 2021, breeding bird surveys don’t really kick into high gear until mid-May once almost all of our breeding birds are back from their wintering grounds in central and South America to Ontario. As I was not a birder when data was being collected for the second atlas (2001-2006), this was my first chance to participate as a volunteer atlasser, and I jumped at the opportunity. Over the last few years, and especially during the lockdowns of the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve gotten to know the birds within my own area quite well, and after looking at a list of the species found in my area during the second atlas, I knew I could contribute some new data on species that were missing. For instance, Red-shouldered Hawk wasn’t found in the last atlas in my area, although I found a pair occupying a nest in Stony Swamp back in 2016. Barn Swallow was recorded only as being in suitable habitat in the last atlas, while they used to nest under the bridge at the Eagleson ponds before the city put wire mesh underneath it. And Killdeer was last reported as showing agitated behaviour, while I’ve seen a fuzzy newly-fledged bird at the Eagleson ponds once.
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. Continue reading →
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.
Although the months of June and July are traditionally considered the breeding season in the Northern Hemisphere, it often lasts well into August in our region. Some species, such as the American Goldfinch and Cedar Waxwing, are late nesters, and time their breeding season with the abundance of seeds and fruit later in the summer. Other species have multiple broods during the course of the season, such as American Robins, Eastern Phoebes, Song Sparrows, and Mourning Doves. August, however, is typically a slow month in the birding world, and while some people characterize the early weeks of the month as the “doldrums”, relieved only by the arrival of the first migrants toward the end of the month, I still enjoy getting out and seeing the young birds following their parents around and listening to those species that are still singing this time of year.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.