Those in my friend and birding circles know I have been dealing with serious health issues since last fall…serious enough to have to take a medical leave of absence from work, and leave me feeling unwell enough to get outside birding for much of that time. The timing could not have been worse as the Omicron variant hit our region in late December and peaked in late January, its insane transmission rate leaving me feeling vulnerable every time I had to leave the house. I stayed home except to go to a medical appointments, despite many offers from friends to go birding, as I couldn’t risk catching COVID while my health was still fragile. However, things are improving on both fronts: the Omicron wave is receding, and I had surgery five weeks ago, and am slowly regaining my strength and mobility. If ever there was a time to be out of commission, this is it: winter is my least favourite season, with its bitterly cold days, icy trails, and lack of flowers and insects. Winter is more a time for chasing than exploring, and while we’ve had a couple of great rarities turn up, I was in no condition to go after them myself.
Another winter is now over, and spring is finally on its way so I thought it was time to do a brief update on some of my more memorable experiences this past January and February. As the Covid-19 pandemic is still ongoing, my fiancé and I did not travel south this past winter; our last real trip was now more than a year ago, when we went to Las Vegas in the first week of February 2020. As such, all of my birding has been local, and with the amazing winter finch irruption this year the birding has been much better than expected. Milder temperatures helped, too – although Ottawa did not see its usual mid-winter thaw (which was not missed with its alternating rain and cold resulting in sheets of ice covering the ground), we did not have any prolonged deep freezes this year, either. The lowest temperature during this past winter was only -23.4°C. Although this still falls (just barely) within the normal range of between -30.3°C and -23.3°C, it is still 4.5°C above the median of -27.9°C. As I am still working from home, I did not have to go out much, and only noticed the temperatures on the weekend when I wanted to go out birding. There were a few times when I found it too cold (which is about -15°C for me these days) to go out, but I ended up going out birding more often than I thought I would.
This year the Audubon Christmas Bird Count celebrates its 121st year. Counting birds at Christmas became a tradition in the year 1900 when ornithologist Frank M. Chapman proposed it as an alternative to the annual Christmas side hunt, a competition in which two different teams killed “practically everything in fur or feathers that crossed their path”. The idea of wildlife conservation was just beginning to take hold around the turn of the 20th century, and Chapman seemed optimistic that burgeoning criticism of the side hunt was a sign that the unnecessary slaughter of hundreds of non-game birds was coming to an end. Chapman asked readers of the journal Bird Lore (the predecessor of Audubon Magazine) to spend some of their time on Christmas Day conducting a census of the birds in their area and send the results to him for publication in February. During that first Christmas Bird Count, 27 enthusiastic birders from two provinces and thirteen states tallied 90 species. Counts took place in New Brunswick, Ontario, a handful of northeastern states, Missouri, Louisiana, Wisconsin, Colorado, and California. In most cases, there was only one observer per count!
I have truly enjoyed these past few months working from home. Without the daily two-hour commute, I have been getting out as often as I can before work and at lunch to take advantage of the quiet weekday trails close to my house. With the arrival of September, however, I’ve been less focused on insects and more interested in birds. Migration has started, though so quietly it is hard to tell when post-breeding dispersal ended and true southward movement of the birds began. I’d already seen some good birds in the last few days of August, such as a juvenile Red-shouldered Hawk at Sarsaparilla Trail, a Red-necked Phalarope at the Moodie Drive quarry, and a Cape May Warbler in my own backyard, but I was eager to get out and see large numbers of songbirds flitting through the trees in various migrant traps, and start creating eBird lists with 40 or 50 different species.
The COVID-19 pandemic caused by the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) is going to be the largest global crisis in modern times. The outbreak started in Wuhan, Hubei, China, in December 2019, and was officially declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization on March 11, 2020. Coincidentally, Ottawa’s first confirmed case of COVID-19 was identified on March 11, 2020 when a Ciena employee returning from a trip overseas fell ill immediately after returning home. A second case also related to travel was made public on March 12, 2020, and our Prime Minister’s wife Sophie Gregoire Trudeau was confirmed to have a mild case the same day. As a precaution Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also went into a 14-day isolation at home, and as he never developed any symptoms, that isolation ended today. By March 13, 2020, the Canadian Tire Center had cancelled all events, the City of Ottawa had closed all of its facilities, a new screening center had been set up at Brewer Arena, and post-secondary schools had moved to online classes. March Break was just beginning for elementary and secondary schools, though they’d been advised that they, too, would be shutting down for a few weeks afterward. Continue reading →
Thursday turned out to be just as sunny as the previous days, with the temperature rising even higher. I had checked eBird the night before to see if any interesting birds were being seen at the Henderson Bird Viewing Preserve or Red Rock Canyon, and when I saw that a Vermilion Flycatcher had been present at Henderson for the past month, I immediately knew this was Thursday’s destination. Males are bright red with black wings, a black back, and a black mask, and if I had chosen a most-wanted bird of the south this would be it. Unfortunately the photos showed that the bird was a female, which is much drabber and looks more like a Say’s Phoebe, but would still be a life bird. Doran and I headed out to the Henderson Preserve early in the morning, and this time we only drove two blocks past the entrance before figuring out we had missed it (my map application had improved since our last visit, but not by much). Continue reading →
On Sunday, February 2nd Doran and I went birding with Bird Las Vegas in order to see some new places and fill in some gaps in my life list after our first trip to Las Vegas in 2017. It was not only Groundhog Day, but Super Bowl Sunday, although any dedicated birder recognizes this day as Superb Owl Sunday instead. When I booked the day-long excursion with Justin Streit, I told him there were two species I really wanted to see: Steller’s Jay and Burrowing Owl. We had already found the Steller’s Jay; the owl was number 16 on my list of target birds, having been reported on 1.0% of all complete checklists in February. The low number bears little correlation to the actual likelihood of the owls being found, however; Justin told me most birders visit them in January to tick them for their year list. Continue reading →
The Northern Hawk Owl is an uncommon but regular visitor to Eastern Ontario in the winter time, generally flying south from its breeding territory in the Boreal Forest in unpredictable irruptions every three to five years. This medium-sized owl feeds chiefly on rodents, Snowshoe Hares, and other small mammals in the summer; in the winter, it will often add birds such as grouse and ptarmigan. Its diurnal nature, flight style, long tail, and strategy of hunting by watching for prey from conspicuous perches more resemble a hawk than an owl, giving rise to its common name.
When the vole population crashes on their breeding grounds every few years, large numbers of Northern Hawk Owls often move south a short distance to find better feeding grounds in the winter. Such irruptions occur regularly, but as vole cycles may be different in different geographic locations, and as the owl’s North American population is affected by the Snowshoe Hare population cycle as well, these temporary southerward movements are not predictable. In irruption years, the earliest Northern Hawk Owls usually start to be seen south of their normal breeding grounds in mid-October, with more arriving on their winter territories by late November. Winter habitats include farmland, prairie, old burn sites, and riparian forest with sufficient trees or posts to provide perches for hunting.
The year 2020 has arrived, and it’s a new decade as well as a new year. Usually it’s only the excitement of starting a brand new list from scratch that gets me going out in January, so on the first day of 2020 I got out early to see how many bird species I could find. As usual, I planned to check a couple of different habitats to maximize the number of potential species; my strategy consists of birding in open farmland, forests, along open water, with a stop at the local landfill. In the past couple of years I’ve only averaged about 17 or 18 species, which is not a particularly high number. My best New Year’s Day was back in 2017 where I counted 26 species – that year I visited Shirley’s Bay, Mud Lake, Jack Pine Trail, the Trail Road landfill, and the Eagleson ponds. The best birds of that day included Bald Eagle and White-throated Sparrow at Mud Lake, Horned Lark on Rushmore, and Gray Partridge on Eagleson. I also tallied 26 species back in 2012, where an unexpected Northern Flicker at Mud Lake, a Red-winged Blackbird at the Hilda Road feeders, and Glaucous and Great Black-backed Gulls at the landfill were the best birds of the day.
October is a month of transition – we leave the hot days of summer behind (although September didn’t feel like summer this year, as the sultry 25-plus-degree temperatures of years past never materialized) and enter true fall, enjoying those crisp sunny days where the north wind carries a hint of winter and the brilliant orange and red foliage slowly starts to carpet the ground. The sun casts longer shadows as its zenith drops lower and lower in the sky each day, and the shorter days become evident when I have to leave for work in the dark in the morning. The birds, too, are transitioning, as most of the insect-eaters are now gone and the bulk of the seed-eaters – mainly sparrows – start moving through. It’s not going to be a good year for seeing finches in the south, as Ron Pittaway’s Winter Finch Forecast indicates bumper crops up north will keep the crossbills, redpolls and Pine Grosbeaks on their summer territory. Waterfowl and shorebirds are still moving through, although heavy rain toward the end of the month obliterated the remaining shorebird habitat along the Ottawa River – so much for the flocks of Dunlin and White-rumped Sandpipers I was hoping to find at Andrew Haydon Park again.