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.
It’s been a while since I’ve been to Algonquin Park – over three and a half years! – and after having a camping trip with Dad last summer and a birding trip with Deb this winter both fall through, I wasn’t sure when I’d get to visit that beautiful park again. When Jon Ruddy announced an excursion to Algonquin this month, I jumped on the chance to go. The birding there this winter has been excellent, with not only the usual Boreal specialties being found on most visits (including Gray Jay, Evening Grosbeak, Boreal Chickadee, and Spruce Grouse), but also most of the winter finches as well. In addition, the park naturalists had put out a road-killed moose carcass in the valley below the Visitor Center, and foxes were being seen feeding on it. Pine Martens have also been observed at the suet feeders and Mew Lake garbage bins in the park on occasion.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.