On September 18th I flew to Edmonton to visit my sister for a few days. Alberta is not a new province for me; my family had lived on an acreage outside of Ardrossan, which is east of Edmonton and Sherwood Park, for seven years from 1989 to 1996. As I was just teenager at the time, enduring all the drama and angst of high school, I had had no interest in nature back then – which is really too bad, as we’d lived on a small lot with a forest behind our house and a slough (a vegetated pond) across the road. When my parents and I moved back in 1996 – they to southern Ontario, via Tweed, and me and my fiancé to Ottawa – my sister remained behind, although it wasn’t until 2012 when I returned to attend her wedding.
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.
Mother Nature has been toying with us. After some great spring-like weather at the end of February, temperatures plummeted to well below seasonal. By March 12th the daily high is supposed to be 0°C; for the last two weeks it’s been much lower, with last weekend’s temperatures below -10°C. I was tired of being cooped up due to the cold weather, so last Sunday I went out to look for Gray Partridges, gulls and hawks south of Kanata despite the frigid temperatures. I struck out completely – it was too cold even for the birds.
On January 1st I woke up early to go birding. The morning was cold, but I was eager to start my new year list. I decided to head to Shirley’s Bay first as I was hoping to see the Bald Eagles around the nest; although I didn’t get the eagles, I found about 30 Snow Buntings foraging along the shore. The only other birds I noted there were American Crow, Common Raven, American Robin, and a goldfinch. I didn’t get photos of any them, either; one thing I hope to do this year is to take a good enough photo of each species I see and add them to my eBird checklists. The new eBird profiles allow you to see how many species you have photographed and uploaded to the eBird library. I have been adding photos to my checklists since this feature first became available last year, but am missing quite a few species on my life list; I figure this is a fun way to try to get good photos of even the common species.
I didn’t get much birding in this past weekend as I had quite a few errands to run, so I spent much of my free time watching the birds in the backyard. The winter finch invasion has continued for the second week in a row, and it was a real treat hearing all the Pine Siskins in the neighbourhood during the week and watching them in the backyard this weekend. Purple Finches are moving through as well, for I found three of them in the park three days in a row last week, and had at least a male and female in the yard behind mine on Thursday and Saturday. The neighbours in the house in the yard behind mine have been keeping their feeder stocked, so there were plenty of finches around on the weekend. Even though it was cold all weekend – it barely reach 0°C on Saturday and 3°C yesterday – the birds spent a lot of time in the trees and shrubs in neighbouring yards, as well as at the feeder in my yard and in the yard behind mine.
I usually never believe the groundhogs when they predict an early spring. Regardless of whether they see their shadow, spring usually arrives right when it’s supposed to – between the second and third weeks of March. An “early” spring might arrive on St. Patrick’s Day rather than the solstice a couple of days later; however, the weather usually remains unsettled, with some snow and sub-zero temperatures still occurring at least a week or two later. The last two years were the exceptions, when spring didn’t arrive until the temperatures rose to above 0°C around April! In fact, the new trend seems to be one of seasons arriving later than usual – just look at how long it took winter to get here this year!
When the weather forecast predicted above-zero temperatures every day starting on Sunday, March 6th I was skeptical. We usually get one or two snowstorms in the first half of March, a last act of defiance on the part of Old Man Winter. We got our snow on March 1st, and then by Sunday the temperature rose to +3°C.
February is my least favourite month of the year, and the weather we’ve had so far has not given me any reason to change my opinion. First we had the bitter cold of the Family Day long weekend. Then on February 16th, Ottawa set a new record for the amount of snowfall in one day: 50 cm. Of course, that was a work day, and even downtown the plows had trouble keeping up with the accumulation on the roads – the snow was falling in a heavy downpour, and both the roads and the sidewalks were a mess throughout the evening commute. A week later, the city received a significant amount of rain followed by a sudden drop in temperature which turned the sidewalks into ice. Another brief rise in temperatures forced the Rideau Canal skateway to officially close for the season on February 25th after one of its shortest season in 46 years – 34 days with only 18 skating days. I have never felt less like birding since this obsession started about nine years ago.
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.
On Saturday I drove to Dow’s Lake at first light to look for the Surf Scoter that has been hanging out there since Thursday. It was supposed to rain later that afternoon, and indeed the sky was dark and ominous when I left. It was rather cold and damp, too, so I wore my winter coat for the first time this fall, even though the temperature was supposed to rise to 14°C.
When I arrived I heard a couple of Golden-crowned Kinglets in the trees near the parking area. I didn’t see much at the Arboretum, but in the marshy area at the edge of Dow’s Lake I saw six Red-winged Blackbirds perched in a large tree and heard a Song Sparrow singing. Another group of about 20 Red-winged Blackbirds flew by a little later but didn’t land. On the water, there were at least 1000 Canada Geese and perhaps half as many mallards swimming in the bay. A large number of American Black Ducks looked completely black in the poor light.