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A Cuckoo at Frontenac Provincial Park

Black-billed Cuckoo

On May 15th I again woke up early, got my breakfast at the Country Kitchen restaurant in Westport, and hit the road before 7:00 am. It was a bright sunny day, and although I knew the forecast was calling for showers in the afternoon, I hoped to have enough time to explore Frontenac Park while the sun was shining and find some interesting birds and butterflies. Southern species such as Yellow-throated Vireo and Cerulean Warbler were on my wish list, as was a butterfly called the West Virginia White. Peter Hall had seen a couple in the park only a week earlier, and I had received directions as to where I would find them. The morning was cool, but I hoped it would warm up enough for a few to be flying before the rain moved in!
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The Right Place at the Right Time

Long-tailed Duck

The toughest thing about birding – and the thing that makes it so addictive – is that most really good bird sightings or good birding days are a matter of luck: being in the right place at the right time. It’s one thing to know that Mud Lake is usually the best place to find Carolina Wrens here in Ottawa, that Northern Goshawks and Least Bitterns breed in Stony Swamp, or that Spruce Grouse are regularly seen at the Spruce Bog Trail in Algonquin Park, but it’s another thing altogether to actually find or observe these species when they are there. Birding, too, is much tougher these days than it was in the 1960s when most bird species were much more abundant than they are today – most new birders have heard stories about huge flocks of Evening Grosbeaks descending on the city in the winter 40 or 50 years ago and cleaning out the bird feeders in a matter of hours. Sadly, their numbers have declined sharply since those days; as of today I have observed about six Evening Grosbeaks total in the city of Ottawa since I started birding in 2006 – and those six birds were found only on three different occasions. It’s much harder to find birds when their numbers aren’t high to begin with, which makes luck so much more important if you are looking for a particular species or just looking to add something new to your year/life/county list. Sometimes you get lucky and find what you are looking for; sometimes you get lucky by finding something you totally did not expect to see that day or in that location. It’s these occasions that are so rewarding, especially after many a fruitless and frustrating outing where the bird didn’t show, or all you could find were starlings and maybe a crow.

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Post Breeding Dispersal

Eastern Kingbird

On the first day of the long weekend I decided to look for odonates at Mud Lake. Specifically, I wanted to find some spreadwings, Fragile Forktails, darners, big river clubtails, or Swift River Cruisers, as I hadn’t seen any of these yet this season. I ended up seeing a couple of Slender Spreadwings, a few skimmer species, one big river clubtail perching on a rock in the river (likely a Black-shouldered Spinyleg), and little else in the way of odes. Unfortunately my best dragonfly of the day turned out to the first one of the day, a skimmer that flew in from the lake, landed, and hung from a leaf about two feet above my head. I could only see the underside and I registered only two things: that it had large coloured patches on the hindwings, and that it appeared red. My first thought was that it was a Calico Pennant, but the spots didn’t look quite right, and the dragonfly seemed larger than a Calico Pennant. I moved around the shrub to get a view of it from the top, but the dragonfly flew off before I could get a photo or even a better look. Only later did I wonder if it was a saddlebags of some sort, or perhaps even a Widow Skimmer whose colours I’d misjudged. I’m not sure what it was, but I really regretted not getting a photo or better look.

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A Slow Start to Spring

Common Grackle

By the end of March temperatures were back to seasonal again, with daily highs between 6 and 8°C. Then it got cold again in early April, with snow in the first week. The birds were coming back, though, and with a long Easter weekend right at the beginning of the month, I was able to get out and spend some time looking for migrants.

On Good Friday (March 30th) I counted 20 species at the Eagleson ponds, including at least five Song Sparrows, two American Tree Sparrows, one Dark-eyed Junco, and eight robins. Blackbirds were back in good numbers; I observed at least five male Red-winged Blackbirds and 15 Common Grackles! In the water, a male Common Merganser had joined the five Hooded Mergansers – two males and a female were swimming in the northern pond while a male and female were swimming together in the southern pond.

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Weekday Migrants

White-crowned Sparrow

May is here, which means we’ve entered the peak of spring migration! I usually see more bird species in May than in any other month (except perhaps September), though this month has been off to a slow start. Not only did May 1st fall on a Monday this year, but the weather has been terrible – it’s been cloudy and rainy for most of the week, with some mornings still cold enough to require gloves. As such, I’ve been doing most of my birding around home, but even so I’ve managed to pick up a few good birds.

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Point Pelee

Lesser Scaup

Point Pelee National Park is only about a 75-minute drive from my mother’s new house, so on Easter Monday we got up early and made the trip down. We arrived at the Visitor Center at 9:45 am, and as this was the first time we’d ever been there outside of the Festival of Birds, we were unprepared to find that the center did not open till 10:00, which was the same time that the tram to the tip started running. I was also surprised to see that the non-birders (including families, cyclists, and dog-walkers) out-numbered the birders. Although Point Pelee is a year-round destination for bird watching, I suspect that the number of non-birders was so high due to the holiday, the nice weather (finally!), and the fact that entrance to Canada’s National Parks is free in celebration of our nation’s 150th birthday. Fortunately we only had a short wait before we could get to the tip and start our birding day, and although we were still a few weeks away from the peak of songbird migration, we still managed to find some interesting birds.

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The Remnants of Winter

Horned Lark

Winter has taken its sweet time in leaving. We’re now a week past the Spring Equinox and the temperature has still been below normal. Even worse, last Wednesday the temperature dipped to -17°C (-28°C with the windchill when we woke up) and then Ottawa received another 10cm of heavy, wet snow on Friday. Once again all the lawns were covered beneath a heavy blanket of snow and the open water in the ponds and rivers began to freeze, reversing all the progress we’ve made to date. I suspect either Mother Nature is being held hostage somewhere against her will, or else she is hiding out in the Mexican Riviera, too afraid to come back to Canada because of the way Old Man Winter has taken over the country. Old Man Winter is now talking about building a wall to keep her out; the snow we received on Friday will become his building materials.

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