June Atlassing Highlights

Blue-winged Teal (male)

Blue-winged Teal (male)

June is my favourite month of the year. This is the month when most insects begin to emerge, their bright wings bringing life and colour to forests, meadows, ponds and backyard gardens. Birds are in full song, and the air is fragrant with all the flowers in bloom. While butterflies and dragonflies become my main focus this time of year, this month I had a second agenda: to continue to look for evidence of breeding for the third Ontario Breeding Bird Atlas. Since I am still working from home as a result of the pandemic, I devoted my morning weekday walks to looking for birds and my longer weekend excursions to looking for all types of wildlife, particularly dragonflies. I thought birding would become boring once migration ended and the resident birds settled down into the more predictable routine of nesting season, but to my surprise I was wrong.

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Winter 2021 Update

Carolina Wren

Carolina Wren

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.

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My first Christmas Bird Count

Pine Grosbeak

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!

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Late Summer in Stony Swamp

Snowshoe Hare (juvenile)

A few years ago I wrote a post about the winter wildlife of Stony Swamp. However, it’s a great place to see wildlife in late summer as well. Many birds are done raising their young and are leaving their nesting areas in a phenomenon known as post-breeding dispersal. By late August, the first songbirds have started migrating through our area as well. Many mammals, too, are moving around, fattening up for the winter ahead and looking for safe places to spend the winter. While there are fewer insect species around, many late-season insects are still breeding and laying eggs to ensure their species’ survival for another generation. Stony Swamp is a great place to see all of these, as the variety of habitats within its boundaries provide food and shelter for a variety of different creatures. And the one thing I like about the trails here is that I never know what’s going to turn up on an early morning or late afternoon walk!

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The Gorgeous Dogbane Leaf Beetle

Dogbane Leaf Beetle

I’ve spent some time birding around home recently, visiting places in Stony Swamp and Shirley’s Bay looking for breeding birds and butterflies. Hairstreaks have been on my mind, and after lunch on July 4th I headed up to Shirley’s Bay where I have seen both Banded (June 2012) and Coral (July 2016) Hairstreaks along Hilda Road in years past. I also thought I might find some baskettails patrolling the open trails, as I’ve seen both Common and Prince Baskettails there as well. Finally, Giant Swallowtails breed on the Prickly Ash plants in the area, and I was hoping to add Ottawa’s largest butterfly to my year list with a visit. Unfortunately it was much quieter than expected, with no baskettails zipping along above my head and no hairstreaks or swallowtails of any kind despite the gorgeous 30°C temperature. The only butterfly I noticed was a very worn skipper in the clutches of Goldenrod Crab Spider hiding in the Purple Cow Vetch.

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Unusual Overwintering Birds

Although it’s been a quiet winter for Boreal finches, Black-backed Woodpeckers, American Three-toed Woodpeckers, and other vagrant or irruptive birds here in Ottawa, we’ve still had a few interesting species overwintering here. A Red-shouldered Hawk was discovered at the Trail Road Landfill on January 25, 2020 and has remained in the area ever since – while most fly south in the fall, this species has been known to stay the winter here on occasion. In fact, my lifer Red-shouldered Hawk was an overwintering bird hanging around near Huntmar and Old Carp Roads in the winter of 2007-08. Their winter diet depends on mostly small mammals, although they may occasionally eat smaller birds such as sparrows, starlings, and doves. This would make the landfill an excellent place for a Red-shouldered Hawk to spend the winter; there are enough mice and small mammals to keep several Red-tailed Hawks well-fed, as well as a huge flock of starlings that spend the colder months here feeding on the remains of the sumac berries and landfill refuse. This winter several sparrows have been seen along the tree-line to the east of the dump, including the usual American Tree Sparrows, Dark-eyed Juncos, and two overwintering Song Sparrows.

I tried for the Red-shouldered Hawk twice after my return from Las Vegas, both on February 15th: I had no luck in the morning, so I returned later in the afternoon and spotted a car parked along the edge of the road. When I pulled over I scanned the area and noticed it perching on a post inside in the dump. This was the best view of a perching Red-shouldered Hawk I’ve had yet; it would be the best photo I’ve ever taken of one, except for the fence in the way – the snow banks were too deep for me to get close enough to put my camera against an opening in the chain link fence.

Red-shouldered Hawk

Although I’ve tried a few times to see it since, I never did find it again. They breed in the Ottawa area, returning in late March from their winter territories, although they are difficult to find. Stony Swamp is a repeat site for these small hawks; I’ve found an occupied nest once, and have seen birds flying over the pond at Sarsparilla Trail multiple times.

Carolina Wrens, on the other hand, are at the extreme northern limit of their range here in Ottawa. This species has been attempting to move further and further north, but often succumb to the harsh Canadian winters without making any real progress. Mud Lake is a repeat spot for this species, and indeed it is where I saw my life bird back in October 2011. One has been overwintering at Mud Lake again this winter; it was seen in the woods until late November 2019, went unreported for a month, and then was re-found on January 1, 2020. I was one of the people who saw it on New Year’s Day; the loud chattering sound caught my attention and I was eventually able to see this tiny dynamo perching out in the open. It has been present up until now, surviving a winter that has seen a lot of snow but very few really cold days (the dreaded Polar Vortex was noticeably absent this winter and was not missed). On February 23rd I caught up with it again in the same general area of the woods on the west side, which is where I’ve had all my Carolina Wrens now that I think about it. Once again I heard it before I saw it, and when it popped up on a tree stump to announce its general annoyance with the world I snapped a quick picture.

Carolina Wren

Just as quickly it flew across the trail and landed next to a huge fallen tree where it weaved in and out of its shadow before disappearing beneath a cluster of branches near the crown.

Birds like these have helped keep the winter boredom at bay. While they may not be able to compete with the birds seen at a tropical destination in the south, they are often difficult to see in the Ottawa area any time of year, and it’s great to get them for my year list now – and to get such great views!

Red Rock Canyon

Variegated Meadowhawk

On our last full day in Las Vegas Doran and I went to the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area to spend some time in the desert. We returned to the Pine Creek Canyon trail, the place where our last trip to Las Vegas began. We got a late start, and were dismayed to see two long lines of vehicles waiting to enter the park. In addition, the price had risen to $15 per vehicle – on our last trip in December 2017 it had only been $7. As long as the money goes toward preserving the area or public education (the Visitor Center has some wonderful exhibits) I’m happy to pay an entrance fee, but the increase was a bit of shock.

We started our visit at the Visitor’s Center. As it was quite crowded we stayed away from the center itself, and walked around the parking lot looking for Cactus Wrens. This was my favourite bird from my last visit here, and I was disappointed when none appeared. We did see a White-tailed Antelope Squirrel scurrying across the parking lot, and I was worried that it would be hit by a car.

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Cottage Life – Days 2 and 3

House Wren

The more you look, the more you see….this is a common theme among those of us who spend our time outdoors with a camera or binoculars, looking for birds, bugs, or just about any facet of nature. The longer a person spends searching an area, whether a quiet bay on a lake, a small urban park, one of the best-known birding hotspots in the city, or even one’s own backyard, the more species a person seems to find – whether they be colourful wildflowers, a new dragonfly or butterfly, small insects they’d never noticed before, or birds that would have been missed if they’d left after that first cursory glance. This, to me, sums up the joy of going outside – it’s a treasure hunt where, instead of targeting one specific thing, any colourful or interesting creature that catches my eye is a treasure! It’s one of the reasons I return to the same spots again and again – to see what “new treasures” might be found there. So of course when I got tired of being indoors at the cottage we rented on Prince Edward Bay in Prince Edward County, I grabbed my camera and went for a walk.

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Images from Migration

Mourning Cloak

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.

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April Summary

White-throated Sparrow

By the time March comes, birders are tired of winter and are eagerly awaiting the arrival of the first spring migrants – the Red-winged Blackbirds, the Common Grackles, the Turkey Vultures, the Song Sparrows and Killdeer. By the time April arrives, birders are eagerly awaiting the next wave of migrants and the first warm days of spring. This year, the second wave of migrants was delayed by the lingering cold temperatures and the lingering snow on the ground. Then it started raining in the middle of the month, and the rivers and creeks began to flood. It was really tough to find the motivation to go out – the weather wasn’t cooperative, the birds were late, and it wasn’t warm enough to look for the first butterflies of the year until toward the end of the month.
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