Migration has been strange this year. Because of the lengthy cold spell at the beginning of May it seemed as if migration had stalled; for so long I felt as though I were waiting for it to begin, then things happened so quickly that now I wonder whether it has passed me by. The White-crowned Sparrows that usually show up in my backyard every year between May 3rd and 5th didn’t arrive until the 14th; the Common Terns that arrive at the Eagleson Ponds between May 10th and May 14th didn’t arrive until May 19th. Neither species stayed long, either. The terns were only there for one day before moving on, instead of spending two or three days. It is harder to know if the White-crowned Sparrow I saw over the course of a few days was the same one or a different one, as many have been singing in our area in the middle of the month.
The warblers came, and the warblers went. I’ve had several Black-throated Blue Warblers this year, and many repeat sightings of local breeding species – but of the ones that only pass through, I’ve sometimes only been lucky to get one: one Cape May Warbler, one Blackburnian Warbler, one Tennessee Warbler, one Bay-breasted Warbler. Again, is this a reflection of my spending time mainly in Kanata south, rather than heading for the migrant traps along the river? There have been excellent reports from the usual spots (Mud Lake, Andrew Haydon Park), but even as the city parks reopened on May 6th and the NCC parking lots reopened on May 22nd as a result of declining Covid-19 cases in the city, I’ve been reluctant to go to the normal spring hotspots to avoid the crowds that tend to gather there, both birding and non-birding alike. This has less to do with any fear of the coronavirus than my preference for quiet birding experiences, away from the loud chatter and narrow, crowded trails that both increase exponentially as the spring wears on and weather warms up.
It’s been a slow start to spring migration. Normally by mid-May returning birds are everywhere, and songbirds are busy feeding and singing in the smallest of parks and unlikeliest of yards. This year, however, with the cold weather and heavy rains it feels like we are still two weeks behind schedule – I saw my first warbler species of the season (a Pine Warbler) at Mud Lake on April 14th, my second (a Yellow-rumped) at Andrew Haydon Park on April 21st, and then my third warbler (a Black-and-White) at the Eagleson Ponds on May 4th. It doesn’t help that Ottawa’s most dynamic and productive migration hotspot, Mud Lake, is closed to the public due to the flooding along the river, but even so I would have thought I’d have seen more warblers by now. It’s been difficult to find new species to add to my year list, even visiting different trails and conservation areas with Mud Lake off limits. Here are a few photos and some of my interesting finds from the past week.
On December 12, 2017 we visited the City of Henderson Bird Viewing Preserve. It encompasses nearly 100 acres of basins, lagoons and ponds and attracts a great number of water birds in the winter. This was definitely the best place for bird photography, as many ducks were swimming close to the water’s edge and plenty of songbirds were flitting in the vegetation along the trails.
Unfortunately my iPhone’s directions stopped short of getting us there, and we continued on the road east for a good number of kilometers before we realized we were lost. Fortunately we discovered this little spot at the Wells Trailhead of the Wetlands Park Nature Preserve while looking for a place to turn around. It had a great view of the Las Vegas Wash, a natural channel that carries storm water, urban runoff, and reclaimed water from the Las Vegas Valley into Lake Mead. The channel was filled with ducks, though we also saw a Great Blue Heron and some unidentified gulls flying west.
Six species of swallows breed in the Ottawa area, and most are easy to find. Tree Swallows like open fields and agricultural areas, particularly where there are lots of natural tree cavities or nest boxes. Barn Swallows also like open fields and farms, but need water in order to build cup-shaped nests of mud on the walls of man-made structures, such as the undersides of bridges and in the rafters of barns or other open structures. Purple Martins nest almost exclusively in man-made houses that can be single gourd-shaped boxes or large multi-cavity apartments; it is difficult to find colonies away from human settlements these days, at least in the east. Northern Rough-winged Swallows nests in burrows or cavities in various substrates, particularly near water, and often use circular drainage holes in the cement walls along bridges and canals. Bank Swallows also nest in burrows and cavities, but are much more particular about using vertical cliffs or banks along streams, lakes, or man-made quarries where they nest in colonies of 10 to 2,000 pairs. Finally, Cliff Swallows – personally the most difficult swallow species for me to find in Ottawa outside of a few known colonies – nest on buildings, bridges, and other man-made structures close to fields or pastures for foraging, and a source of mud for nest building.
Last fall we had the American Pipits, Lesser Black-backed Gull, and all kinds of shorebirds; with so many wonderful birds stopping over at the Eagleson storm water ponds during last fall’s migration, I couldn’t see how spring migration could begin to match it. However, on Sunday I broke 40 species there for the first time ever with a total of 42 – just surpassing my high total of 38 species on September 18, 2016. Even though the shorebird species were limited to the two common summer residents – Spotted Sandpiper and Killdeer – the diversity of the other birds was more than impressive.
Once again I was without a car, so I walked over at about 9:30 through a light rain, bringing my umbrella with me. As soon as I got close to the water I heard the grating calls of a couple of terns and headed out onto the peninsula to take a look. Continue reading →
The middle of May is the best time to see various migrating birds in Ottawa. However, once again the forecast for the weekend called for rain on both days (May 13th and 14th), and I wasn’t sure how long I’d be able to go out birding – or whether or not I’d be able to get out at all. Since my fiancé needed the car for pretty much the full weekend, I was extremely limited in the places I could go. There are only a few places I can get to by bus (not that getting anywhere by bus on the weekend is easy), and I didn’t want to get caught in a downpour someplace where I might need to walk 20-30 minutes to get to the bus stop, then wait another 20-30 minutes for a bus to arrive.
Fortunately, the storm water ponds are only a 15 minute walk from home. Intermittent showers on Saturday made for a not unpleasant experience birding there; I was thrilled to tally 37 species altogether.
Weather in April can be described in only one way: changeable. It can turn from spring to summer to winter in the matter of hours, making it difficult to know how to dress any given day – you may need a hat and gloves in the morning, then be wearing shorts in the afternoon. Even the weather toward the end of the month can be variable. Last Thursday (April 27th) Ottawa’s temperature reached a sunny, humid high of 26°C; yesterday (April 30th) the rain clouds moved in and temperatures barely reached 5°C.
Migrants have been returning in large numbers despite the inconstant weather. On Friday I woke up to see two White-crowned Sparrows on my backyard, and they were there again Sunday morning. This was a year bird for me, and the earliest date I’ve recorded them in my yard; normally they arrive during the first week of May, with my previous early date being May 4th.
Wallaceburg is in Chatham-Kent, but Lambton County is just a ten-minute drive away from my mother’s house. I didn’t realize this when Mom suggested we go birding north along the St. Clair River; although I am not a huge county lister, the new eBird profile pages are great incentive for birding across county lines. The profile pages provide you with a coloured map of all the countries, provinces, states and counties where you have birded, the colours shading from yellow to red depending on the number of species seen, and there is something about seeing all those empty white spaces (much like a Sudoku puzzle) that creates a festering need to fill them in.
The St. Clair River connects the upper and lower Great Lakes and separates Ontario from Michigan. There are numerous small parks and lookouts along the river that can be used for picnicking, camping, or river-watching. Although most of the parks consist of manicured lawns with a few trees here and there, the chief attraction here for birders is the thousands of ducks, gulls and other migratory waterfowl that congregate here in the winter and during migration, in particular Common Goldeneyes, Redheads, and Canvasbacks. We took a drive from Port Lambton up past Sombra on my first morning in southern Ontario, crossing over into Lambton County as we stopped at some of these parks and giving me the opportunity to fill in one more county on my eBird profile page.
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.
On Saturday, April 30th I took the train to Kitchener to visit my mother and step-father, and on Sunday, May 1st we drove down to Point Pelee. We weren’t able to check in at the Best Western just outside of the park until the afternoon, so we headed to the Tip as soon as we arrived at 11:00. The weather was not cooperative – it was cold and overcast, with the same north winds I’d experienced in Ottawa. North winds in May are never good for migration; birds trying to fly across the Great Lakes will stay on the south side of the lakes until the winds shift from out of the south, giving them a boost across the water. Of course, north winds could also mean that any birds already in the park would likely stick around before continuing north, but this did not seem to be the case.