By the end of September there is a change in the air. There are fewer warbler species and more sparrows and thrushes and kinglets as the temperature starts to fall and the nights grow longer than the days. On the last Saturday in September I started my day with a walk at the Eagleson ponds, where only a few Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs remained after the recent rains caused the water levels to rise. The Great Black-backed Gull, three heron species, and a single kingfisher were still present as well. About 150 Canada Geese were swimming throughout the ponds; these were new, as only one or two families had stayed the summer. The only Red-winged Blackbirds I saw were all in a single flock of about two dozen birds flying over, and while Song Sparrows were still numerous, the first Dark-eyed Junco had arrived. A single Ruby-crowned Kinglet, two Yellow-rumped Warblers, and two Blackpoll Warblers were signs that the season was changing.
I had a few days off in the middle of September and spent them birding. The weather was fantastic from Thursday through Saturday, and I started my days at the Eagleson storm water ponds which usually has a great diversity of species during migration. The habitat has been excellent for shorebirds, as the water levels were low enough for Lesser Yellowlegs to walk around the middle of the central pond. However, I was really hoping to find some different warbler and songbird species to add to my list, and checked each grove of trees carefully. I wasn’t happy when I found only one warbler species (a Common Yellowthroat) in the 5 hours I spent there total, but the diversity of shorebirds was amazingly excellent. Several were foraging quite close to shore, too, making them easy to identify! I found nine species altogether, which is terrific for an urban pond system so close to human habitation.
The winter doldrums hit early, and hit hard. After a late start to winter, there were two feet of snow on the ground by Christmas, and by New Year’s Day we were in the grip of a week-long deep freeze with temperatures rising only as high as -17°C during the day – most of the time we were right around -20°C. From then on we suffered the usual bitter cold/messy thaw/winter storm cycle that characterizes our Ottawa winter throughout January and February. While a good number of Snowy Owls were present in the region, there were no winter finches, no Bohemian Waxwings, no northern woodpeckers, and no unusual owls or raptors (i.e. Boreal Owl, Gyrfalcon) to add excitement to the birding scene. Less and less I found a reason to go out, even on those weekends when it wasn’t snowing/raining or bitterly cold, and I lost the motivation to keep a winter list or work on my year list – anything that’s in the first two months of 2018 will still be around when the weather warms up in April.
Thursday was our last full day in Vegas. We had no plans that day, as we had hoped to fit in a day trip to the Grand Canyon, but the logistics of such a trip proved more difficult and elaborate than we had anticipated. After deliberating about where to spend our day, we chose to go back to the Red Rock Canyon for a “real” hike. First, however, we stopped in at the Visitor Center to look for the Cactus Wrens we had missed on our first trip. They like to feed on dead bugs on the parked cars, and are said to be easily found there. We parked in a spot well apart from the other cars, close to the edge of the desert, and wandered around the Visitor Center for a bit. By the time we got out we found a couple of birds in the scrub close to our car. Sure enough, they turned out to be the birds we were looking for!
On Wednesday we returned to Sunset Park, as it was only a 15-minute drive from our hotel. I wanted to check the undeveloped desert dune system for more desert birds, and wasn’t disappointed. Although I didn’t get any new life birds, I did get a nice photo of a Greater Roadrunner, perhaps the bird I most wanted to see on the trip. A male Phainopepla and a male Anna’s Hummingbird were also great finds, though both were too far for decent photos.
November is a great month for finding rare birds in Ottawa. The shortening days, dropping temperatures, and unexpected weather systems can all result in birds moving around, and this time of year it’s not uncommon for younger birds to wander or be blown off course. The past few weeks have been exciting, with a Razorbill on the Ottawa River from October 30-31st, a flyby Northern Gannet going up the river on November 12th, and an Anna’s Hummingbird in Carleton Place all being reported. On November 2nd – the day that the temperature jumped from 6°C to 13°C as just such a weather system dropped almost 30mm of rain on the city – an unlikely songbird found itself in Ottawa. A young Black-throated Gray Warbler was discovered at the Britannia Conservation Area, aka Mud Lake, Ottawa’s mega hotspot for rarities, by Bruce Di Labio. This tiny warbler normally lives west of the Rocky Mountains and spends the winters in central Mexico and is not supposed to be anywhere near Ottawa.
Our warm fall weather continued this weekend, with sunny blue skies and temperatures reaching above 20°C both days – it was 11°C higher than it should be this time of year. With the return of our rather late summer, it was a bit of a shock on Saturday to see that two of our common winter residents had arrived in the region: the Common Goldeneye, a diving duck that inhabits the ice-free portions of the Rideau and Ottawa Rivers all winter long, and the American Tree Sparrow, a small brown sparrow with a red cap that likes shrubby habitats and sometimes visits bird feeders in more rural areas.
I was still trying to bring my year list up to 200, and started the weekend off with a walk around the Eagleson storm water ponds. I was hoping for Cackling Goose, though a Greater White-fronted Goose would also have been nice – although much more rare than the diminutive Cackling Goose, it’s one I keep looking for every time large numbers of geese start gathering here before finally moving on. To my disappointment I found only three waterfowl species: Canada Goose, Mallard, and a few lingering Double-crested Cormorants. I was happy to see that the cormorants were still around, as every sighting could be the last of the year.