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A Storm of Warblers

Palm Warbler

I usually take the second week of May off every year, and head south to spend time birding Point Pelee National Park with my mother. I was unable to make the trip this year, but as I needed a break from work and a change of scenery I spent three nights in Westport instead (more to follow in a separate post). Spending time at Murphy’s Point Provincial Park, Frontenac Provincial Park, and Foley Mountain Conservation Area was fantastic, but unlike Point Pelee, these areas are not migration hotspots or migrant traps, and I had to work hard to get as many species as I did. As a result, I wasn’t expecting much when I returned to Ottawa on Thursday, but it seemed the floodgates had finally opened and the birds were moving north in large numbers. I went out Friday morning, and although the temperature hadn’t improved – the day was overcast and the temperature was still below normal for this time of year – the birds must have been getting anxious to get back to their breeding grounds, for the variety of birds at the Eagleson ponds was amazing.
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Looking for Wood-Warblers

Canada Warbler

We are now nearly two weeks into September and I have not found as many warblers or songbird migrants as I had hoped. In a previous blog entry I wrote about how edge habitats can be productive for migrants, especially those with a good diversity of plants which provide cover and food sources for not just the birds of the two dominant habitats, but others as well. I’ve been spending most of my weekend mornings at the Eagleson Ponds, followed by trips to other places with good edge habitat – last weekend it was the Old Quarry Trail, Beaver Trail, and Sarsaparilla Trail; this weekend it was the Richmond Sewage Lagoons, Rideau Trail, and Sarsaparilla Trail. Each time I’ve been disappointed, wondering where all the migrants were. I suppose I could just go to Mud Lake and rack up a list of 30+ species there, but it is often packed with birders and photographers this time of year, and I prefer quieter places.

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Sweltering August Heat

Blue Dasher

The August long weekend is here, and it’s been brutally hot and humid. Temperatures have reached as high as 32°C with a humidex of 41. It didn’t feel quite so hot yesterday, but today was awful. The sun was relentless, and there was no cooling breeze to provide relief. Being in the shade helped, but even so, I didn’t feel like staying out for very long.

We haven’t had much rain in the last month, so the water levels of the Ottawa River have dropped and mudflats are developing in Shirley’s Bay and Ottawa Beach. I wanted to look for shorebirds, but Shirley’s Bay didn’t sound too appealing – a long mosquito-infested walk through the woods to get to the dyke, which is almost completely open to the baking sun – all the while carrying a scope that sometimes feels like it weighs as much as I do. So yesterday I drove over to Andrew Haydon Park instead.

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Elfins and Emeralds

Eastern Pine Elfin

The Stony Swamp trail I spend the least time at, other than Lime Kiln, is Trailhead P11 on West Hunt Club. It’s a lovely trail, but it doesn’t have any marshes with boardwalks; the spring flooding requires knee-high rubber boots; and turning left back onto West Hunt Club into the Saturday mid-day traffic can be a nightmare. Still, it’s a great trail system through some prime mixed deciduous and coniferous forest, and I’ve been trying to visit more often to see what kinds of species make their homes here. It’s better for breeding Wood Thrushes than the other Stony Swamp trails, possibly because the forest is denser with fewer open areas, and I’ve had more Broad-winged Hawks here in the summer than anywhere else. I visited one morning in May while on vacation, hoping to find some new species to add to the hotspot list and perhaps to see some butterflies now that the weather has gotten warmer.
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Turtles and Warblers at Mud Lake

Snapping Turtle

Mid-May is the most exciting time to go birding in northeastern North America. The peak of migration has arrived, bringing the bulk of the warblers, flycatchers, cuckoos, vireos, a few shorebirds, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, Indigo Buntings, Scarlet Tanagers, Baltimore Orioles, and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks. On good days with fallout conditions, birds can be everywhere in migrant traps like Point Pelee, Rondeau Park, or Mud Lake here in Ottawa. Sometimes vagrants can occur with these expected species, particularly southern species that overshoot their breeding grounds and end up further north than their breeding range. The chance of seeing just such a rarity adds to the excitement and joy of seeing all our familiar summer residents again.

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Early Warblers

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Warblers are probably the most eagerly-awaited returning migrants for birders all over northeastern North America. As a group, the combination of song and colour is unmatched by any other type of songbird in our region, and many North American birders consider them the jewels of our region. Warblers are insect eaters, and as such, pass through Ottawa late in the spring migration season, with the hardiest species arriving in mid- to late April. The Pine Warbler is usually the earliest of these, closely followed by the Yellow-rumped and Palm Warblers. About a week later the first Black-and-white Warblers, Nashville Warblers and Black-throated Green Warblers arrive. The Blackpoll Warbler is usually the last warbler to appear, stopping here only temporarily before continuing on to its breeding grounds in the black spruce and tamarack forests further north. This amazing species holds the record for the longest nonstop over-water flight by a songbird, taking up to three days in the fall to reach its wintering grounds in the southern Caribbean and northern South America.

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The Henderson Preserve – Lifer #500!

Black Phoebe

Once I’d had my fill of the gorgeous red Cinnamon Teals, Doran and I continued our walk around the ponds. The Cinnamon Teal was bird no. 497 on my life list, and I was getting excited about the possibility of finding three more before we left. We continued making our way around the ponds, and it wasn’t long before I heard some activity in the thin screen of vegetation between the trail and the water. Quite a few songbirds were foraging in the shrubs, including a couple of Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Verdin, and White-crowned Sparrows. Then I heard a familiar buzzy call – it sounded like a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, familiar from my spring visits to Point Pelee, although I knew from checking eBird that this species was only a summer resident. However, the Black-tailed Gnatcatcher spends the winter in Las Vegas, and I spent some time tracking down a couple of these tiny, frantic little birds. I got good enough looks to identify them as gnatcatchers, though I was disappointed they looked just like our Blue-gray Gnatcatchers: males have a distinctive black cap, but only in spring. Still, I was happy to add it to my life list as bird no. 498!

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