The end of December dragged for me, with a few remaining species needed for my year list that I just couldn’t catch up with (Barred Owl, Northern Shrike, American Three-toed Woodpecker) and a few I didn’t make the effort to see (Barrow’s Goldeneye, Tufted Titmouse). I ended the year with 185 species recorded in Ottawa (plus two others in Nova Scotia), which is lower than the previous two years – one good thing about the Covid 19 pandemic is being able to work from home and go birding in the morning rather than commuting! This number was higher than the 177 species seen in 2019, which makes it similar to pre-pandemic life (also known as “the before times”).
So when January 1st finally rolled around I was ready to get out and start my brand new year list off with a bang. Last year at this time I was still undergoing active medical treatment – including surgery late in the month – and was not feeling well enough to do much birding. I managed to do only one full birding outing in all of January 2022, a quick trip to the Eagleson Ponds on New Year’s Day. I ended my day with 9 species and the month with 17 – the rest of my January 2022 birds were seen from my window at home or on trips to the hospital. My goal for the first day of 2023 was to see more species than I had seen during the entire month of January 2022, and I succeeded.
It was a mild day. We had just received 15 cm of snow a few days earlier on top of the 25 cm of snow received in the Christmas Eve storm, but most of it had been washed away by a heavy rainfall on December 31st. I headed to Jack Pine Trail first for two reasons: there was still a great variety of species there despite the OFNC feeder being removed after the May 2022 derecho (the downed trees had destroyed the clearing in which it hung), and I was still searching for the American Three-toed Woodpecker that had been discovered there on December 12, 2022.
By the beginning of fall (September 22, 2022) I was feeling enough like myself to get out regularly and chase birds close to home. I was up to 158 species for my Ottawa year list, which wasn’t too shabby considering I’d spent most of the first four months at home recuperating from surgery and finishing my active cancer treatment, but I still needed a lot of species to reach my goal of about 200. I’d added Great Black-backed Gull and Redhead with a visit to the Moodie Drive quarry pond on September 20th, and two days later I saw the American Coot and Snow Goose that had been reported there. The day after that I visited the park off of Steeple Hill Park in Fallowfield and added two much-needed songbirds: Blue-headed Vireo and Orange-crowned Warbler. Highlights from that day included a Ruffed Grouse drumming in the woods somewhere and a Merlin flying over – briefly dashing after a goldfinch before flying on. Other warblers included Nashville, Magnolia, and Palm Warblers.
By the time November arrives, all but the hardiest of insects have vanished, leaving only those few species that are adapted to the cold temperatures of mid-autumn in Canada. The last dragonfly on the wing here in Ottawa is the Autumn Meadowhawk, a small red or brownish dragonfly with very little black along the abdomen and yellow or brown legs. It is these two traits that make them easy to distinguish from other local meadowhawks – the other common species have distinct black markings on the abdomen and black legs. The most similar dragonfly in our area is the Saffron-winged Meadowhawk, which also lacks distinct black abdominal markings. However, the Saffron-winged Meadowhawk is larger, usually has a noticeable amber-coloured tint to the leading edge of its wings, and has black legs with brown stripes. In addition, most of the other meadowhawk species are gone by mid-October.
While it is true that fall migration proceeds at a much more leisurely pace than migration in the spring, each species moves according to its own internal calendar. In late August and early September you might find warblers, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, flycatchers, vireos, orioles, Cedar Waxwings, and Scarlet Tanagers foraging together in a single patch of woods. A month later the same patch of forest might hold sparrows, kinglets, Winter Wrens, Rusty Blackbirds, nuthatches, Hermit Thrushes, and boreal finches, while waterfowl on rivers and ponds increase in numbers and diversity. I usually notice the switch around the fall equinox, when the sparrows start to outnumber the warblers and I realize that it’s been a while since I last saw a flock of Cedar Waxwings. Now is the time to look for American Pipits in open scrubby areas or along rocky shorelines, scoters and grebes along the river, hawks and Turkey Vultures soaring toward southern climes, and any lingering warblers in the hope it is something other than a Yellow-rumped.
On Saturday, July 31st my fiancé and I took two days to make the long drive to Nova Scotia. We planned to stay two weeks, although we were both working remotely at a cottage on the shore of Scot’s Bay, Kings County during the first week and used the second week as a true vacation week in Greenwood. By then there were no restrictions to enter Quebec or New Brunswick, although we had to show proof of vaccines and a travel permit at the Nova Scotia border. Once inside the border we were still subject to gathering regulations, mask mandates, and contact tracing protocols to dine indoor at restaurants, something we hadn’t done in Ontario since last fall.
Scot’s Bay is a community on Cape Split. The cape juts out into the Bay of Fundy, separating it from the Minas Basin. This continuation of Nova Scotia’s North Mountain range is 7 kilometres long and ranges between several kilometres to several dozen metres in width. It reaches 200 metres above sea-level at the scenic Look-Off halfway along the highway, and terminates in the relatively new (2019) Cape Split Provincial Park at the end. It also has a second provincial park, Blomidon, on the Minas Basin side, and a tiny access point to the beach on the Bay of Fundy side called Scot’s Bay Provincial Park. This is where I got my lifer Sanderling in 2008.
This year marks the start of a five-year breeding bird survey for the third Ontario Breeding Bird Atlas, which is a collaboration between Birds Canada, the Canadian Wildlife Service, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, the Ontario Field Ornithologists, and Ontario Nature. Approximately 300 bird species breed in our province, and the goal of the atlas is to map the distribution and relative abundance of these species by looking for evidence of breeding for as many species as possible. By conducting surveys every 20 years researchers are able to determine which species are expanding their range, which ones are shrinking, which species are increasing in abundance, and which ones are declining. Although data collection began on January 1, 2021, breeding bird surveys don’t really kick into high gear until mid-May once almost all of our breeding birds are back from their wintering grounds in central and South America to Ontario. As I was not a birder when data was being collected for the second atlas (2001-2006), this was my first chance to participate as a volunteer atlasser, and I jumped at the opportunity. Over the last few years, and especially during the lockdowns of the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve gotten to know the birds within my own area quite well, and after looking at a list of the species found in my area during the second atlas, I knew I could contribute some new data on species that were missing. For instance, Red-shouldered Hawk wasn’t found in the last atlas in my area, although I found a pair occupying a nest in Stony Swamp back in 2016. Barn Swallow was recorded only as being in suitable habitat in the last atlas, while they used to nest under the bridge at the Eagleson ponds before the city put wire mesh underneath it. And Killdeer was last reported as showing agitated behaviour, while I’ve seen a fuzzy newly-fledged bird at the Eagleson ponds once.
The Song Sparrow is one of the most common sparrows across much of North America – even if you can’t say for certain whether you’ve ever seen one, you’ve almost certainly heard one at some point, even if you didn’t recognize its song. Song Sparrows are the exact opposite of the “habitat specialist” – they live in a wide variety of open habitats, including marshes, open grasslands, desert scrub, agricultural fields, overgrown pastures, alvars and old fields, lake edges, forest edges, and not-so-quiet suburbs. It is a rare day when I go out birding between late March and mid-November when I don’t at least hear one of these birds singing in the background or chipping at me from a dense thicket next to the walking path.
By mid-October sparrows are moving through our region in good numbers. Breeding residents such as Chipping Sparrow, Swamp Sparrow, Song Sparrow and Field Sparrow are just getting ready to leave, while winter residents such as American Tree Sparrow and Dark-eyed Junco are just beginning to arrive. Other species, such as the White-crowned Sparrow and Fox Sparrow which spend neither the summer nor winter here, are now passing through. White-throated Sparrows are also found in large numbers this time of year, although any remaining summer residents have been joined by numerous individuals from the north on their way to their winter grounds. It is a marvelous time of year to look for mixed flocks in scrubby fields and forest edges; sometimes you might get lucky and find something completely unexpected!
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.
A few years ago I wrote a post about the winter wildlife of Stony Swamp. However, it’s a great place to see wildlife in late summer as well. Many birds are done raising their young and are leaving their nesting areas in a phenomenon known as post-breeding dispersal. By late August, the first songbirds have started migrating through our area as well. Many mammals, too, are moving around, fattening up for the winter ahead and looking for safe places to spend the winter. While there are fewer insect species around, many late-season insects are still breeding and laying eggs to ensure their species’ survival for another generation. Stony Swamp is a great place to see all of these, as the variety of habitats within its boundaries provide food and shelter for a variety of different creatures. And the one thing I like about the trails here is that I never know what’s going to turn up on an early morning or late afternoon walk!