Usually the first two weeks of April are a slog to get through – it still looks and feels like March, cold north winds and long spells of rain manage to out-compete the longed-for southerly winds and warm, sunny days, and although migration should be well under way, it takes forever for the next spate of migrants to arrive. Then one day it happens: you realize the snow is finally all gone, the ponds are ice-free, the buds on the trees look ready to burst open, and your neighbourhood Chipping Sparrows are back and singing right outside your window. The temperatures are finally reaching double-digits on a daily basis, and there are new birds moving in! The second half (well, the last third, really) of April is when the birding really picks up and it really begins to feel like spring. This truly is the beginning of my favourite time of year; here are a few of the things that make birding in late April so wonderful.
So on November 16th I finally went out and bought a new camera. There was nothing wrong with the old one except for a deficiency in zoom; while a 30x zoom seemed more than sufficient when I bought it, super-zoom cameras now have up to 83x zoom, and I’ve been thinking for a while that I could really benefit from that extra reach. As I still haven’t spent last year’s Christmas bonus, I decided it was time to go to Henry’s to take a look at their super-zoom cameras. In the end, I decided to go with the Nikon Coolpix P610 because its 60x zoom gives me double the zoom of my Sony Cybershot HX200V, and its image quality seemed much better than the Sony Cybershot’s 50x zoom camera. The price was also good since Nikon had just released the Coolpix P900, its 83x zoom camera; this meant I could stretch my bonus further and get a new scope, too (choosing the Vortex Razor HD 20-60×85 spotting scope for its excellent quality). Although switching brands meant I would have to spend some time learning the Nikon’s controls, in the end the only thing I regretted was not getting this camera sooner in order to practice taking macro photos of dragonflies!
I’ve been spending a lot of time in Stony Swamp over the holidays. It is a huge conservation area in western Ottawa, with several trails only a short drive from my house. Its location is the chief reason why I spend so much time there, but another reason is the abundance of wildlife. Some places I’ve visited in wintertime are absolutely desolate – for example, on a visit to the Cedar Grove Nature Trail in February 2013 I recorded only two bird species (Black-capped Chickadee and Pileated Woodpecker) and zero mammals, despite a variety of tracks visible in the snow. At Stony Swamp, the wildlife is used to being fed right along the trails and, accordingly, this is where many species gather, rather than dispersing deeper into the woods.
Groundhog Day has come and gone, and we are still more than a month away from the spring equinox. This is the time of year when birding reaches its lowest ebb; the birds aren’t moving around very much, and migration is still weeks away. In Ottawa, February is the quietest month for birding, but there have been enough interesting reports to send me out each weekend looking for new year birds. I have added only five new birds to my year list so far this month, including a Common Merganser in the channel behind the Ridge at Mud Lake, and the over-wintering Hermit Thrush behind the Parliament buildings. After realizing just how short a walk Parliament Hill is from the building where I work, and how much potential there is for finding migrants there in season, I’ve made it a goal to spend more lunch hours there this spring.
Sometimes the best outings occur when you go looking for one particular species but find something entirely different instead. With many of my coworkers still on holidays, things were quiet enough at work that I had enough time to go to Hurdman on my lunch break on Thursday and Billings Bridge on on Friday. With a year list of only 17 species after the first day, I was still missing several ducks, finches, and other common birds. I hoped to rectify this by spending some time along the Rideau River, even though it was still bitterly cold…Ottawa was stuck in a deep freeze that lasted three days, with the daytime temperatures reaching no higher than -23°C. Fortunately there was very little wind, which made the cold tolerable so long as I bundled up in numerous layers before heading out.
Winter came early this year. Even before November was over we received our first major snowfall and had days that were only -10°C. I went out two Sundays ago, but the cold Arctic wind gusting down from the north made for some difficult birding. I wanted to go out and look for some gulls, but didn’t realize just how brutal the wind was until I arrived at Andrew Haydon Park. I found several Canada Geese and Ring-billed Gulls resting on the ice of the half frozen ponds; there were no other gull species present, and all the ducks seemed to have left. The sub-zero temperatures made me wonder why the geese hadn’t gone with them. Because the wind blowing off the Ottawa River was so strong, I only stayed for 15 minutes before giving up and driving over to Sarsaparilla Trail, figuring a quick walk through the woods might be warmer….and more productive.
I never tire of visiting Sarsaparilla Trail. It is a short trail, which means I can spend as little as half an hour there and still have a good look around; however, I usually spend at least an hour there, more if there are a lot of birds on the pond or chickadees to feed.
It is a peaceful place. Because it’s such a small trail, I usually don’t encounter many people there, especially very early in the morning at this time of year when the temperature is hovers around 0°C and there is still frost on the grass. The chickadees eagerly seek me out, often followed by the nuthatches, Blue Jays and squirrels, and I can talk to them without worrying about what anybody thinks.