It’s been a good year for seeing Northern Map Turtles. They live in large, slow-moving rivers and lakes with a soft, mucky bottom and plenty of logs or rocks for basking, and while they are abundant in places like Petrie Island (before the floods, anyway) and the causeway at the Morris Island Conservation Area, I have rarely ever seen any close to home. This year, however, I found these turtles in three different places in Ottawa’s west end, fairly close to shore where they often find places to bask in the sun.
The Northern Map Turtle is considered to be a species at risk, as it is listed as Special Concern under both the Ontario Endangered Species Act, 2007 and the Federal Species at Risk Act, as well as being designated as a Specially Protected Reptile under the Ontario Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act. However, given the current political climate of favouring development over the protection of at-risk wildlife and the ecosystems in which they live, it is uncertain how long these laws and protections will remain in existence. Threats to the Northern Map Turtle include water pollution (due to its effect on molluscs, a primary food source), habitat loss and degradation, shoreline development, road mortality, fish hooks, and boat propellers. I’m not sure as to why I’m now seeing them along the shore of the Ottawa River within the city, or if that’s a good thing or bad thing – are they moving closer to shore because they have lost habitat elsewhere? Or are numbers doing so well that turtles are seeking new places to live? Fortunately, these turtles do not seem to hold much interest for poachers, as they are rarely used for food or the illegal pet trade.
Spiders are not my favourite critters…generally I prefer wildlife with six or fewer legs. However, I find some orbweavers to be quite pretty, and the large fishing spiders to be as fascinating as they are terrifying. I’m less fond of those that live in webs than those that don’t, as well as those with disproportionately long, bristly legs. Of all the different types of spiders out there (and there are many!), there is one group of spiders that I find quite charming….the jumping spiders. They have a cuteness that their larger, longer-legged, smaller-bodied cousins lack. It’s not just their small size and shape, which resembles the creepy-looking orbweavers and wolf spiders about as much as a hummingbird resembles a duck. Their appeal comes from the eyes, specifically the two central forward-facing eyes that make them look more like a Disney creature than a grotesque alien. Jumping Spiders have four pairs of eyes, the largest of which are in the center of the head and can move to focus on potential prey; the three small secondary pairs on the sides of the head do not move.
By the second half of March our region has seen enough warm days for the local ponds to start opening up again, especially those with water running through them. The Eagleson storm water ponds are the first ponds to show open water in the spring, usually in the middle of March after a few days of temperatures above zero. Other local ponds, such as Bruce Pit, the Moodie Drive quarry, Sarsaparilla Trail, and the Richmond Conservation Area, tend to take longer to open up, likely because they do not have a stream of water flowing through them. I usually can tell when the water of the Eagleson ponds open up by the sudden appearance of chains of Canada Geese flying over my house, but this year I saw my first geese of the year while driving by the ponds on March 14th and saw seven of them flying around, looking for a place to land. When I visited the ponds two days later, there was a bit of open water in the central pond and about 100 Canada Geese and 150 mallards were present.
Although birders tend to refer to “spring” and “fall” migration, many birds begin heading south in mid- to late August, and a few (such as shorebirds which are unsuccessful in finding a mate) even begin migrating in July. In Ottawa, this southbound migration often overlaps with post-breeding dispersal, which means that even in July and August it is worth checking familiar places for birds that may be moving through. This year, southbound migration began for me on August 19th with a trip to the Rideau Trail off of Old Richmond Road. I usually start checking the boardwalk and hydro cut for migrants this time of year as the edge habitat and buckthorn bushes loaded with berries can be fantastic for warblers, flycatchers, thrushes and other migrants. Most of the birds I saw or heard were likely local residents, although the Black-and-white Warbler I heard singing here may have come from deep within the woods or elsewhere, and it was pretty neat to see an Ovenbird strolling along the boardwalk. A squeaky Rose-breasted Grosbeak and two Least Flycatchers calling made me think these birds were moving through, as this section of the trail is normally pretty quiet in the summer.
Mud Lake and Andrew Haydon Park are usually excellent places to find different species of dragons and damsels throughout the summer months. In both 2015 and 2019 I had a good number of species at Andrew Haydon Park in late July, and an OFNC dragonfly outing at Mud Lake on July 21, 2013 also netted some fantastic species. I was hoping for some similar luck on an ode-hunting trip on July 24th, but this time I found fewer species and fewer individuals overall. I am not sure why there seem to be so few dragonflies around good pond habitat these past two years (such as the Eagleson ponds), but the trend is concerning.
My first stop was the shoreline at Mud Lake where I hoped to find some large river clubtails perching on the rocks in the channel behind the filtration plant. When I arrived I was happy to find two dragonflies perching on the rocks right away, and managed only to photograph one before a couple of people came along and scared them both – while I’m certain one of them was a clubtail, the one I photographed turned out o be an Eastern Pondhawk. The clubtail did not return, although I saw a couple flying out over the water several times on my visit.
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.
A Barnacle Goose showed up in Ottawa earlier this year, although at first I didn’t pay much attention to the reports. It was observed along the Rideau River between Hurdman and Billings Bridge on May 28th and 29th, and if I had been working downtown at the time – only a short train ride from Hurdman – I might have gone to chase it, despite the concerns about the bird’s lineage. The thought at the time was that it might have had some Canada Goose ancestry, and Billings Bridge was too far out of my way to chase a bird that might or might be countable on a work day. The bird disappeared for a while, then showed up again in the west end on June 23rd – this time at Nortel Marsh – before spending the first week of July at Wesley Clover Parks just off of Corkstown Road.
As expected, November turned out to be a dark, cold and dismal month. Temperatures fell to zero or below every single night, we had our first snowstorm on Remembrance Day (November 11th), and temperatures dropped to a frigid -10°C for a week in the middle of the month. Weather records indicate that this was the coldest November since 1995 with an average temperature of -1.87°C; the normal range usually falls between between -1.08°C and 4.20°C. Only six days were above average, with four days below the minimum temperature ever recorded. Fortunately warmer temperatures caused all the snow to melt in the last week of the month, but as a result of these below-seasonal temperatures, I saw no butterflies or dragonflies this month, and my backyard chipmunks disappeared early for their winter hibernation.
Birding in November means watching the feeders, the landfill (the Trail Road Landfill can be thought of as a giant feeder for gulls, crows and blackbirds) and the river. Driving through farmland and open fields can also be productive as the first returning winter residents, such as Rough-legged Hawks, Snow Buntings, Northern Shrikes, and Snowy Owls, look for suitable habitats to spend the winter. Ponds can be productive early in the month, but once the water freezes any lingering waterfowl or shorebirds will disappear.
Back in 2011 I wrote about a visit to Andrew Haydon Park where I had the privilege to see both a Red-necked Phalarope and a Parasitic Jaeger. Today I had the opportunity to see another Red-necked Phalarope the same time a different jaeger was reported.
It was a cool, gloomy morning threatening rain, so I wasn’t sure I wanted to go out birding. At 10:00 I received a report that two Red-necked Phalaropes, as well as several Sanderlings, Pectoral Sandpipers, and Bonaparte’s Gulls, were refound at Ottawa Beach (Andrew Haydon Park East). Then, almost three hours later another report came in: a jaeger was also present at Ottawa Beach! It wasn’t a flyby, as so often happens with rare birds; instead it had landed and was resting on the water. That report settled my indecision, so I headed off to the river. Unfortunately by the time I arrived it was just a dark blob bobbing on the water near Britannia Pier, so I turned my attention to the shorebirds instead. I saw the Bonaparte’s Gull standing in the water, the Pectoral Sandpipers and Sanderlings near the mouth of the creek, and both Red-necked Phalaropes. One was foraging on the opposite bank, but the other was on my side of the creek only a few feet away!
By Labour Day weekend shorebird migration is well underway and some of the less common species start to arrive in our region. While the Eagleson storm water ponds are a great spot to find common species such as both Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, Least Sandpipers and Semipalmated Sandpipers, the mudflats of the Ottawa River attract a variety of other birds, especially those that prefer tidal beaches and rushing water. Unfortunately, the water level of the Ottawa River depends not just the amount of rainfall we receive during the summer, but also the actions of the dam further upstream. We have received little rainfall this summer, as in most of our summers recently, however, this year the dam gates have remained shut so that the falling water levels have created the mudflats necessary to attract flocks of shorebirds. It has been great to see the sandbars emerge on the river on my daily bus commute along the Sir John A. MacDonald Parkway, and I was thrilled to see the mudflats developing at Andrew Haydon Park in recent weeks. This past weekend I went looking for shorebirds early in the morning, and the huge exposed muddy beach at Ottawa Beach was the best I’ve seen it in years. As long as the dam gates remain closed, this part of the Ottawa River shoreline will remain the best spot for viewing hard-to-find shorebird species throughout the fall given its accessibility.