Another winter is now over, and spring is finally on its way so I thought it was time to do a brief update on some of my more memorable experiences this past January and February. As the Covid-19 pandemic is still ongoing, my fiancé and I did not travel south this past winter; our last real trip was now more than a year ago, when we went to Las Vegas in the first week of February 2020. As such, all of my birding has been local, and with the amazing winter finch irruption this year the birding has been much better than expected. Milder temperatures helped, too – although Ottawa did not see its usual mid-winter thaw (which was not missed with its alternating rain and cold resulting in sheets of ice covering the ground), we did not have any prolonged deep freezes this year, either. The lowest temperature during this past winter was only -23.4°C. Although this still falls (just barely) within the normal range of between -30.3°C and -23.3°C, it is still 4.5°C above the median of -27.9°C. As I am still working from home, I did not have to go out much, and only noticed the temperatures on the weekend when I wanted to go out birding. There were a few times when I found it too cold (which is about -15°C for me these days) to go out, but I ended up going out birding more often than I thought I would.
Recently I’ve noticed a small flock of waxwings flying outside my house from time to time. Because of the distance I haven’t been able to determine which species of waxwing, and again this morning I noticed a flock while putting the garbage out. I stopped to watch them while they circled the street before flying off. There is a small crabapple tree in the yard across the street from mine, and I’ve been waiting for the last month for either the Bohemian Waxwings or Pine Grosbeaks to discover it. However, the waxwings didn’t land in the tree, so I went back to gathering my green bin and recycling box from the garage. It wasn’t until I made a second trip out to the curb that I realized I could hear a few Cedar Waxwings calling. I looked up, and in the tall deciduous tree next to the crabapple tree I saw about 25 Cedar Waxwings perching.
This year the Audubon Christmas Bird Count celebrates its 121st year. Counting birds at Christmas became a tradition in the year 1900 when ornithologist Frank M. Chapman proposed it as an alternative to the annual Christmas side hunt, a competition in which two different teams killed “practically everything in fur or feathers that crossed their path”. The idea of wildlife conservation was just beginning to take hold around the turn of the 20th century, and Chapman seemed optimistic that burgeoning criticism of the side hunt was a sign that the unnecessary slaughter of hundreds of non-game birds was coming to an end. Chapman asked readers of the journal Bird Lore (the predecessor of Audubon Magazine) to spend some of their time on Christmas Day conducting a census of the birds in their area and send the results to him for publication in February. During that first Christmas Bird Count, 27 enthusiastic birders from two provinces and thirteen states tallied 90 species. Counts took place in New Brunswick, Ontario, a handful of northeastern states, Missouri, Louisiana, Wisconsin, Colorado, and California. In most cases, there was only one observer per count!
This November has witnessed one of the most dramatic battles between the seasons I have ever seen: the battle between Winter and Summer. Autumn has been watching from the sidelines as first Summer forced its way back onto the stage with temperatures ranging from 19°C to 23°C between November 5th and November 11th; birds were singing and butterflies were flying again on Remembrance Day. Winter fought back on November 18th with the first sub-zero day of the season and a high of -3°C, but Summer regained the upper hand when the thermometer rose to 15°C two days later. Winter’s next strategy involved dumping almost 8 cm of snow on our region on November 22nd, with another 2 cm two days later. We haven’t seen this much snow on the ground since March 9th, and normally don’t get this much until about December 11th. Summer has since retaliated by raising temperatures to almost 5°C the past two days, and 7°C today. The snow is melting, and although it looks like Summer is finally weakening, I’m dreading to see what Winter has in store next. Fortunately it looks as though Autumn has had enough of these two fighting over its territory, and has sent them both packing as temperatures are supposed remain in the single digits next week with more rain than snow in the forecast.
The Richmond Sewage Lagoons (formally known as the Richmond Conservation Area) is one of the few places in Ottawa that did not close its parking lots during the COVID-19 pandemic, and as such, it is one of the few birding spots I visited regularly during the months of April and May. The habitat is unique: there are three cells left from the former sewage lagoons, each containing its own mini-ecosystem. The first cell as one approaches from the parking lot on Eagleson (the southernmost cell), has deep water and extensive cattails, making it great for Pied-billed Grebes, rails, bitterns, Swamp Sparrows and waterfowl, mainly geese and dabbling ducks. The middle cell has deeper water and very little cattails, making it a better spot to see diving ducks. The third cell used to be almost entirely choked with cattails interspersed with small patches of open water, making it the best spot to watch and listen for rails. This spring when I arrived on my first visit I was dismayed to see that not only had the cattails been chopped down, but so had some of the tall trees bordering the cell. The cell looked like a soup of water and what was left of the churned up marsh bottom and vegetation, although a deep puddle ringed with a few cattails remained. Continue reading →
On the first day of the long weekend I decided to look for odonates at Mud Lake. Specifically, I wanted to find some spreadwings, Fragile Forktails, darners, big river clubtails, or Swift River Cruisers, as I hadn’t seen any of these yet this season. I ended up seeing a couple of Slender Spreadwings, a few skimmer species, one big river clubtail perching on a rock in the river (likely a Black-shouldered Spinyleg), and little else in the way of odes. Unfortunately my best dragonfly of the day turned out to the first one of the day, a skimmer that flew in from the lake, landed, and hung from a leaf about two feet above my head. I could only see the underside and I registered only two things: that it had large coloured patches on the hindwings, and that it appeared red. My first thought was that it was a Calico Pennant, but the spots didn’t look quite right, and the dragonfly seemed larger than a Calico Pennant. I moved around the shrub to get a view of it from the top, but the dragonfly flew off before I could get a photo or even a better look. Only later did I wonder if it was a saddlebags of some sort, or perhaps even a Widow Skimmer whose colours I’d misjudged. I’m not sure what it was, but I really regretted not getting a photo or better look.
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.
April has arrived, and I think spring has finally arrived with it. We’ve finally had some nice, sunny days and the weather has warmed up, so Deb and I finally got together to do some birding on the second day of April. We headed over to Mud Lake, where we only managed to tally 20 species; this is usually a great place to take in spring migration, but there was surprisingly little difference in the species seen since my previous visit on March 18th. The best birds there were an American Tree Sparrow, three Wood Ducks flying along the river, and an adult Cooper’s Hawk in the woods. Once again a male and female Downy Woodpecker pair came readily to my hand to take some food. I am now noting these birds in eBird, as I’ve been hand-feeding them for a couple of years now. The starlings singing near the filtration plant were of special interest, as we heard them imitating the calls of a Killdeer, an Eastern Wood-pewee, and even a Tree Frog!
It feels like migration has ended. Although my focus was on breeding birds this morning, I had hopes of finding a few last migrants moving through, especially after finding a singing Bay-breasted Warbler in my own subdivision yesterday morning in a nearby park. I visited two spots with specific breeding birds in mind – Nortel Marsh for Willow Flycatcher and Savannah Sparrow, and Shirley’s Bay for Brown Thrasher. The trails along the river at Shirley’s Bay are also a good spot to find migrants, such as the Canada Warbler I had there two years ago. And once it warmed up, I had hopes of finding some butterflies and dragonflies.
Easter was early this year, which is always a bit disappointing as a birder – when it falls at the end of March, migration is just getting under way and there isn’t the same variety of species around as there would be later in April. Still, I was looking forward to adding a few birds to my year list, so I headed over to Mud Lake yesterday (Easter Sunday). I still haven’t seen a Great Blue Heron or Brown-headed Cowbird yet this year, and it’s just about time for Eastern Phoebes, Northern Flickers, Tree Swallows and Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers to arrive back on territory. I was also curious as to whether the Northern Mockingbird was still around – there haven’t been any reports, but then I don’t know if anyone has gone and looked for it. With a forecast high of 13°C, it seemed a nice day to go for a walk around the lake, though it was still close to 0°C when I headed out.