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April Sun, April Showers

Winter Wren

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.

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Interspecies Disputes

Spotted Jewelweed (aka Touch-me-not)

Spotted Jewelweed (aka Touch-me-not)

Labour Day weekend is here, and in my view, it is the best birding long weekend of the year – although Victoria Day comes close, by then songbird migration is mostly over, and high water levels in the spring mean that there are fewer shorebird species around places like Shirley’s Bay and Andrew Haydon Park. At the beginning of September, however, lots of different kinds of birds are passing through, and the weather is still very warm, so there are more insects around, too.

Yesterday morning I decided to head out early as I was hoping to beat the crowds of dog-walkers, wind-surfers, joggers, etc. to the mudflats at Ottawa Beach. It was only 9°C when I left, with a few fog patches in the low-lying areas, but when I arrived at Ottawa Beach at 6:40am I found only two other people – a photographer and another birder just walking in. A small group of shorebirds was foraging along the shore, and when I set up my scope I was happy to see a Sanderling (an Ottawa year bird), a Pectoral Sandpiper, and half a dozen Semipalmated Plovers.
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Catching Up with Migration in Ottawa

Lesser Scaup

Lesser Scaup

After we returned from Mexico I only had a week to enjoy migration in Ottawa before heading off to southern Ontario to see my family. When I awoke in my own bed on Saturday, the day after our return to Ottawa, I was happy to find some migrants right out in the backyard: a Red-winged Blackbird was singing and two male Brown-headed Cowbirds were foraging in the neighbour’s trees, a Ruby-crowned Kinglet was flitting around in a shrub in the yard behind ours, and a Chipping Sparrow and three Dark-eyed Juncos were vacuuming up the seeds beneath my feeder. Both the cowbirds and kinglet were year birds for me. Out front I heard a Common Grackle singing and saw a Blue Jay breaking off twigs from the tree outside my window for nesting material. I was surprised that the juncos were still there, but – as expected – the Pine Siskins were gone. Indeed, although I heard and saw others around Ottawa until the middle of May, I never had any visit the feeder in my yard again.

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Searching for Clubtails

In mid-June Chris Lewis received correspondence and photos from two members of the Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists regarding their recent sightings of Rapids Clubtails along the Mississippi River. A couple of these clubtails were observed along the shore at Blakeney on June 15, 2015, while one or two others were spotted at the bottom of the power station discharge channel next to Metcalfe Park in Almonte. Chris was interested in trying to track these small dragonflies down, and so on June 20th she, Mike Tate and I headed out to Almonte.

The Rapids Clubtail flies between mid-June and mid-July and is considered rare and local because of its preference for fast-moving waters along various water courses. It was first discovered in the Ottawa area by Paul Catling in mid-June 2001 when he found them at the five-arch bridge in Pakenham and at the rapids near Blakeney. In 2009, it became the first Ontario dragonfly to be added to the endangered species list; the larvae are extremely sensitive to river degradation resulting from the building of dams and increasing pollution levels. While it previously inhabited four rivers in southern Ontario, the Rapids Clubtail is now found only along the Humber and Mississippi rivers.

Rapids Clubtail habitat in Almonte

Rapids Clubtail habitat in Almonte (click to enlarge)


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A New Bird at Hurdman

Gray Catbird

Gray Catbird

On Monday I went to Hurdman hoping to find some flocks of warblers after seeing so many at Mud Lake on the weekend. I found two flocks of migrants, but didn’t get a good enough look at the birds in the first group before they flew deep into the vegetation. One might have been a Philadelphia Vireo; one might have been a ratty-looking Carolina Wren. I really wanted to get a good look at the wren, as I had never seen a Carolina Wren at Hurdman before and I never did get a good look at the one at Britannia this year. Unfortunately the wren (if that’s what it was) flew across that bike path and into the shrubs so quickly that all I got was the impression of a cinnamon-coloured throat, brown upper-parts, and a hint of a messy white supercilium.

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A Day at Point Pelee

Blue-winged Warbler

Blue-winged Warbler

The next morning dawned bright and sunny with a brisk, cool wind blowing from the east. Knowing how cold it can be at the tip first thing in the morning, I put on my winter coat and hat and tossed my spring jacket into the back seat of the car. We were out the door reasonably early – but not early enough to see the Laughing Gull that was found at the tip by the first group of birders arriving in the park. After checking out the sightings board at the Visitor Center to find out where the birds were being seen, we headed outside to wait for the tram. A White-crowned Sparrow hopping along the ground was a year bird for me, and we were entertained by two male Orchard Orioles chasing each other in one of the trees next to the tram stop. The Orchard Oriole was a life bird for Deb; we don’t have them in Ottawa, though I wish we did!

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The Changing Composition of Migration

Carolina Wren

Most people are surprised when I tell them that “fall” migration generally lasts from July through December in Ottawa. First come the shorebirds, although the ones we see passing through in July are not leaving their Arctic breeding grounds because of a change in season, but because they were unable to find mates or because their nests failed, usually due to predation, severe weather, flooding, etc. Many of these non-breeders are first- or second-year birds that have completed the full journey to their breeding grounds only once or twice. Adult shorebirds which did manage to breed successfully follow next. They are quick to leave the north once their young have become fully independent; the young, migrating for the first time, follow at a more leisurely pace. Because different species leave at different times, and because birds migrating south do so at a slower pace, it is possible to find migrant shorebirds from July through November, when the cold-tolerant Purple Sandpipers – generally the last of the shorebirds to head south – move through Ontario.

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