My last day off was Tuesday, and the forecast finally called for a decent amount of sun during the morning and afternoon. I invited a friend, Jon, to go dragon-hunting with me at Morris Island since he was eager to become re-acquainted with odonates after a long absence. There were a few particular species on his must-see list, including Cobra Clubtail, Cyrano Darner and Dragonhunter; I’d seen all of these at Morris Island before, though I wasn’t optimistic about our chances of seeing the Cyrano. Although it is considered to be a widespread species, inhabiting swamps, small lakes, and slow-moving rivers of the eastern half of the continent, adults are rarely seen. It is thought that once they emerge they immediately fly up into the tree tops where they spend most of their time. Adult males can sometimes be found patrolling their territory, and this appeared to be just such a case with the one that I caught in the parking lot of the Morris Island Conservation Area last year. That was on June 25th, however, I was worried that we might be too late to see them.
Usually the first two weeks of April are a slog to get through – it still looks and feels like March, cold north winds and long spells of rain manage to out-compete the longed-for southerly winds and warm, sunny days, and although migration should be well under way, it takes forever for the next spate of migrants to arrive. Then one day it happens: you realize the snow is finally all gone, the ponds are ice-free, the buds on the trees look ready to burst open, and your neighbourhood Chipping Sparrows are back and singing right outside your window. The temperatures are finally reaching double-digits on a daily basis, and there are new birds moving in! The second half (well, the last third, really) of April is when the birding really picks up and it really begins to feel like spring. This truly is the beginning of my favourite time of year; here are a few of the things that make birding in late April so wonderful.
Yesterday morning I went birding on my own again, stopping in at Sarsaparilla Trail, the Rideau Trail, and Richmond Lagoons before ending up at the ponds on Eagleson. I arrived at Sarsparilla Trail at 7:30, but unfortunately I wasn’t the first one there; two young people were flying a drone from the boardwalk. I had never seen a drone in action before, and was momentarily intrigued by it; however, this put a damper on my birding experience as it was too noisy to hear any chip notes from the birds in the marsh. This resulted in an uncharacteristic zero-sparrow list, though I did hear a Gray Catbird, and find a Brown Creeper, a Pileated Woodpecker, and a Ruffed Grouse in my short time there. The Rideau Trail wasn’t much better, though I did see a phoebe flycatching from a post in the parking lot fence and two House Wrens in the hydro cut – I wondered if one was the same individual that I saw along the boardwalk on Saturday.
From there I drove over to the Richmond Lagoons, traditionally a great spot for shorebirds and ducks in the fall. The drought, however, had dried the ponds completely up and I was curious to see whether the ponds had filled again after the recent rains. To my disappointment they were still fairly dry, but the birding was still pretty good so I spent an hour walking the loop that goes through the woods, cutting close to the Jock River.
The long-awaited south winds arrived on Saturday, and I was eager to get out the door early and see if any new birds had blown in with the gorgeous weather. I started off the day at Jack Pine Trail where I hoped to find the Black-backed Woodpeckers again. Though I didn’t see the woodpeckers or any new birds (where are the Winter Wrens? The Field Sparrows?), I did come up with 25 species, including two Tree Swallows flying over the marsh at the back, three different Brown Creepers singing, two Ruby-crowned Kinglets, a flock of 10 Cedar Waxwings flying over, half a dozen White-throated Sparrows singing, and a single Purple Finch.
Sunday was another gorgeous day so after lunch I went out to look for butterflies. I started off my walk at the Rideau Trail, but after seeing very little I decided to head over to the former Nortel campus instead. The woods here are a traditional spot to find overwintering butterflies on the first warm days of spring, and I’ve had luck finding Mourning Cloaks and Eastern Commas here in the past. I also wanted to check on a few spots where I’d heard Western Chorus Frogs calling in previous years.
The woods were quiet when I arrived – there weren’t many birds around, though a few chickadees flew up to me looking for handouts. It didn’t take long to find a couple of Mourning Cloaks circling each other as they flew up into the trees. As I was still watching them, a third landed on a tree in front of me.
There’s nowhere better in Ottawa to take in migration than Mud Lake. On May 11th I planned to meet up with some friends from the OFNC for a morning of birding; however, first I decided to stop in at the Beaver Trail to see if the beavers were still around. I didn’t see any, but I heard a couple of Black-throated Green Warblers, an Ovenbird, a Yellow-rumped Warbler, and a Yellow Warbler on my walk. A pair of Ruby-crowned Kinglets were still around, and a Great Crested Flycatcher had taken up residence along the trail. My best sighting was of four White-crowned Sparrows foraging along the edge of the parking lot just as I was leaving; I was about to drive off when I spotted them scurrying along the edge of the grass.
Migration finally started picking up toward the end of April, though the only interesting bird that showed up in my yard this year was a Ruby-crowned Kinglet on two occasions. Hurdman Park turned out to be great spot to take in migration this year. On one occasion I spotted 40 or 50 swallows flitting over the fields and river; they were probably mostly Tree Swallows, though I did spot a brown swallow and what was likely a Barn Swallow among them. On the first day of May I spotted a different flock of birds soaring over the area – a large kettle of Broad-winged Hawks! I had seen them fly over Hurdman before, though the most I had seen together was three. This time I spotted a large flock of over 20 birds, with another flock of 11 following behind it. As the birds were constantly moving in and out of the main group, I didn’t want to double-count any; it is likely that there were as many as 50 hawks altogether – the most I had ever seen at one time!
Last week saw the arrival of a whole slew of migrants; I added 13 new birds to my year list between Thursday and Sunday, NOT including the two swallow species seen at Billings Bridge on Friday. Even better, the temperature finally warmed up enough for the first butterflies and amphibians to emerge on Saturday!
I’d been seeing large flocks of geese flying over my house for a while now, and I wanted to check out the flooded fields along Eagleson before they dried up. I thought I’d have a good chance of finding large flocks (i.e. hundreds or more) of geese in the wet corn fields and, after finishing an early dinner on Thursday night, headed south along Eagleson Road. It wasn’t so much the Canada Geese that interested me as it was the possibility of finding other species – Snow Geese, Ross’s Geese, Cackling Geese, and the ever-elusive Greater White-fronted Geese – lurking among the huge numbers of Canadas that stage here before flying north.
June is my second favourite month of the year, right after May. Although migration is over, the birds are singing on territory and more butterflies and dragonflies have begun to emerge, adding interest to my outings. This year, however, is turning out to be a poor one for butterflies, partly because the drought last summer killed off a lot of the larval food plants, and partly because of this year’s cold, wet spring. I only saw a couple of blue butterflies this spring – a couple at Hurdman and one at Shirley’s Bay – but didn’t get close enough to photograph or identify them. Cabbage White numbers seem to be low, and I’ve seen only three Canadian Tiger Swallowtails this spring, all of which flew over my head without landing.
The weather has warmed up over the past week and the migrants have been pouring in. Since my last blog post on April 21st I’ve added nine new species to my year list, and seen my first butterflies and amphibians of the year.
I spent two lunch hours at Hurdman last week, and found some amazing birds each time. On Monday, a couple of American Tree Sparrows were feeding in the grass near the entrance to the woods; these are the first ones I’ve seen there this year, and were probably just stopping in on their way north to their breeding grounds. Also new for the year were a pair of Hooded Mergansers sleeping in a quiet bay along the river and at least three Ruby-crowned Kinglets singing energetically. In the woods, several Dark-eyed Juncos and White-throated Sparrows were singing as they foraged in the leaf litter.