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.
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.