I haven’t been able to get out birding as much as I had hoped over the holidays. For one thing, I didn’t have any days off except for the stat holidays; while this resulted in a four-day weekend for me, I only had the car for only three of them, and we had our typical December bad weather on two of them (including freezing rain on Boxing Day). However, my firm closed at noon on both December 23rd and 30th, so I was able to go birding right after work on both Fridays. As the weather was decent both days, I got to spend a little at places I usually don’t visit on the weekend – Hurdman and Billings Bridge.
We are now nearly three weeks into the new year and already I’m detecting a rather concerning weather trend: the sun comes out during the week, when I’m working, and then when the weekend arrives the clouds and the precipitation (both rain and snow so far this month) arrive with it. I prefer to do my birdwatching and photography on days with some sun, as the sunlight brightens up the dreary gray-and-white landscape and makes the colours on the birds pop. It’s often difficult to see the field marks on a dark bird silhouetted against a white sky, especially from a distance; and in the woods, it’s often too dark beneath the trees to get any decent photographs. Still, I hate being cooped up indoors for any length of time, so even when it’s been rainy or snowy I’ve been trying to get out to find some birds to add to my year list. The list has been growing slowly but steadily, with 12 new birds added since I went back to work on January 4th.
Spring is here! Not only are the birds flooding back, but temperatures have finally reached the double-digits! The snow is virtually gone, and the Ottawa River is flowing again (although some icy parts remain near the shores, particularly between Woodroffe and Dominion Station). Since April 9th I have added 10 new birds to my year list, seen a few more butterflies, and – best of all – I have finally ditched the winter coat.
I’ve been meaning to get to Billings Bridge for a while now, and finally had the chance last Thursday. It was overcast and cold (only 4°C at lunch time). I still managed to tally 16 species including one Common Goldeneye, 3 Wood Ducks, 8 Hooded Mergansers, 3 Common Mergansers (all males), a couple of Red-winged Blackbirds and a Song Sparrow.
A lot of snow fell this past winter, and the sudden rise in temperatures this past week is causing it to melt very fast. The Rideau Valley Conservation Authority issued a flood watch last Monday, which it upgraded to a warning on Tuesday, stating that some parts of the Rideau River were expected to rise to the flooding levels “within the next 24 hours”. When I went to Hurdman at lunch on Thursday, I found that a significant amount of snow had melted, not only flooding the bike path in its usual spot near the transit station, but also the feeder path along the woods. I started walking through what looked like snow, only to sink into a large lake of water about a foot deep hidden underneath. As I couldn’t take either of my usual routes, I had to take a longer loop around to reach the river.
Sometimes the best outings occur when you go looking for one particular species but find something entirely different instead. With many of my coworkers still on holidays, things were quiet enough at work that I had enough time to go to Hurdman on my lunch break on Thursday and Billings Bridge on on Friday. With a year list of only 17 species after the first day, I was still missing several ducks, finches, and other common birds. I hoped to rectify this by spending some time along the Rideau River, even though it was still bitterly cold…Ottawa was stuck in a deep freeze that lasted three days, with the daytime temperatures reaching no higher than -23°C. Fortunately there was very little wind, which made the cold tolerable so long as I bundled up in numerous layers before heading out.
A few weeks ago Deb and I met at Billings Bridge to look for spring migrants. Even though it was a few days past the spring equinox, the weather was still quite cold; hardly any of the snow had melted, and was still too thick for any groundhogs to have emerged. While a pair of Common Mergansers and a dozen Canada Geese had joined the usual mallards, black ducks, and Common Goldeneyes on the river, we didn’t see any Wood Ducks, Pied-billed Grebes, or Hooded Mergansers. The Ring-billed Gulls had also returned, and one was giving a strange, incessant call that I’ve never heard before. I stopped to make sure that the call was in fact being made by a Ring-billed Gull, and then I heard the raspy call of a displeased crow. I turned around in time to see the crow dive-bombing a large bird perching in a tree next to the river, and I told Deb, “We just walked right by a hawk!” It was a juvenile Cooper’s Hawk, my first of the year. I wondered if the hawk was the reason why the gull was calling continuously from its place on the ice.
On Boxing Day I spent some time along the Rideau River, opting to enjoy the peace of nature rather than the bustling malls full of shoppers looking for deals. A male Barrow’s Goldeneye and at least one Glaucous Gull had been seen around the Hurdman bridge in the last week, and I was hoping to add these species to my winter list. I decided to stop in at Billings Bridge as well, as this is another good spot to look for gulls and mammals such as River Otter, Beaver and Muskrat.
As usual, I parked at the mall and crossed Riverside Drive to get to the park. The deep snow made walking difficult, and a quick scan revealed no mallards or mammals in the open water near the small parking lot. I walked along the river toward Bank Street, seeing one adult Herring Gull and five Great Black-backed Gulls standing on the ice, as well as two Common Mergansers, several Common Goldeneyes, and hundreds of mallards near the bridge.
Temperatures returned to seasonal during the week after my trip to Algonquin with Deb. I stopped by Hurdman twice during the week, and picked up two new year birds: a pair of Hooded Mergansers on Monday and a single Song Sparrow on Friday. On Saturday the warm weather returned. The temperature reached an unseasonal high of almost 20°C, and the days have gotten progressively warmer ever since.
I decided to visit Sarsaparilla Trail first thing Saturday morning, despite the gray fog that blanketed the area. Several new birds had arrived, including Red-winged Blackbirds, a single Song Sparrow, three Hooded Mergansers, Canada Geese, and Common Grackles. I could only see the edge of the pond closest to the boardwalk; I couldn’t tell if any Great Blue Herons were lurking around the edges of the marsh. At one point a male Purple Finch landed on a tree overlooking the marsh and began singing. This was one of the highlights of my trip, along with two Eastern Chipmunks scurrying about in the woods.
On Wednesday the temperature shot up to 10°C. The air didn’t just feel mild – it was actually warm. I headed to Billings Bridge at lunch, hoping to find the first Red-winged Blackbirds and Ring-billed Gulls of the season and maybe a mammal or two. Although the Red-wings hadn’t yet arrived, I had better luck with my other two targets. Ring-billed Gulls were plentiful, both loafing on the ice and flying overhead. I also noticed my first groundhog of the year sticking his head out of the snow. It was such a heart-warming sight that I waited several minutes to see if he would come out of his burrow; he didn’t, but I got plenty of pictures of him surrounded by a blanket of snow.
On Boxing Day I got up early to check out a report of an American Coot at Billings Bridge along the Rideau River. This species has eluded me all year, and the idea of adding it to both my year and winter lists was just too tempting to resist. I parked in the large parking lot at Billings Bridge mall (despite my aversion to being anywhere near a shopping mall on Boxing Day), then crossed Riverside Drive to get to the park.
Although the water was still open along this section of the river, I saw no ducks along the shore. A couple of years ago it was not unusual to see about 100 mallards and American Black Ducks in this area during the winter, but I think people have stopped feeding them here and now feed them at Linda Thom Park on the other side of the bridge. I recall finding a Green-winged Teal and a couple of female Wood Ducks here a couple of times in winters past; today there were no ducks whatsoever. Continue reading →