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The Ducks are Back in Town

Bufflehead (male)

Bufflehead (male)

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.

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The White Winter Weasel

Weasel sp.

On November 30th I spent some time at the Eagleson Ponds looking for migrants. I haven’t been able to get out as much as I would have liked these past few weeks, and with the days getting colder (some days have not even reached as high as 0°C recently) I have felt even less inclined to go out – my tolerance for cold has plummeted these past few winters, leaving me with no desire to get out first thing in the morning when it is well below zero. When it warmed up to -1°C after four subzero days in a row, I decided to take advantage of the nice weather to head out to the ponds in the afternoon just to see what was around. It was a cloudy day with no wind, perfect for scanning the flocks of geese still around.

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After the Equinox

Black-capped Chickadee

Black-capped Chickadee

While it is true that fall migration proceeds at a much more leisurely pace than migration in the spring, each species moves according to its own internal calendar. In late August and early September you might find warblers, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, flycatchers, vireos, orioles, Cedar Waxwings, and Scarlet Tanagers foraging together in a single patch of woods. A month later the same patch of forest might hold sparrows, kinglets, Winter Wrens, Rusty Blackbirds, nuthatches, Hermit Thrushes, and boreal finches, while waterfowl on rivers and ponds increase in numbers and diversity. I usually notice the switch around the fall equinox, when the sparrows start to outnumber the warblers and I realize that it’s been a while since I last saw a flock of Cedar Waxwings. Now is the time to look for American Pipits in open scrubby areas or along rocky shorelines, scoters and grebes along the river, hawks and Turkey Vultures soaring toward southern climes, and any lingering warblers in the hope it is something other than a Yellow-rumped.

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Fall Migrants

Black-bellied Plover

Black-bellied Plover

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.

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An Early Spring

Eastern Chipmunk

Eastern Chipmunk

It’s been a while since we’ve had an early spring in Ottawa. In recent years it seems that the snow hasn’t melted until late April, it hasn’t really warmed up until May, and while the first couple of waves of migrants arrived on time, migration slowed down for a few weeks sometime in April when the north wind started blowing out of the Arctic again. Insect-eating birds were delayed, the butterflies and dragonflies emerged late, and then the Victoria Day long weekend hit and suddenly summer has arrived with temperatures in the mid to high twenties.

This year, however, it warmed up early and stayed warm. Our last subzero day was March 16th, and we regularly started reaching double-digit temperatures on the first day of spring, with nine days at 10°C or higher during the rest of the month. Our total snowfall in March was only 6.8 cm, below the normal range of 11 to 84 cm, and it was the windiest March since 1974. It was the 10th warmest March on record; our highest temperature reached 19.8°C, above the normal range of 8.3 to 19.2°C. I kept waiting with dread for one last cold spell or dump of snow, but so far April has been even nicer, with the first two days reaching only 3°C and the rest (to date) ranging from 10 to 24°C. As the snow disappeared quite quickly last month, plants are emerging from the ground early, buds on trees are starting to leaf out early, and butterflies are emerging early. It’s been great for my mental health to see so many signs of new life and renewal.

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The Eagleson Pond Mink

American Mink

The American Mink is a relatively new addition to the list of fauna found at the Eagleson storm water ponds. I had first heard that there was one there in 2019, but had never seen it for myself. Then when Sophie found one killed on the road later that year I figured my chances of seeing one there had vanished. Fortunately Sophie saw another one there in March 2020, very much alive. It took me until May 2nd to see it for the first time, running along the rocks near the footbridge. I managed to get ahead of it, and got one photo for my iNaturalist project when it popped its head up while trying to find a way to get by me (I didn’t mean to block its path; I hadn’t realized it had swum across the channel beneath the bridge to the side where I was standing).

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Goose-watching in Kanata

Ross’s Goose

November is goose season here in Ottawa. While flocks of local Canada Geese start gathering together in late September, geese from much further north begin arriving throughout October, once the lakes and rivers on their breeding grounds in the territories and along Hudson’s Bay freeze over, until their numbers peak in November. Ottawa is an important staging area for many different waterfowl species, as the Ottawa River and numerous small lakes and ponds in the area often remain open well into December; the geese rest on these bodies of water during the night, then go feed in the numerous agricultural fields just outside the city during the day. This is the time to look for Snow Geese and the diminutive Cackling Geese among them; if you are lucky you will find a Greater White-fronted Goose hiding within the flock – or something much rarer.

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Amber and Saffron Wings

Saffron-winged Meadowhawk

It’s been a good season for hard-to-find dragonflies at the Eagleson Ponds. Ever since I discovered both Eastern Amberwings and Saffron-winged Meadowhawks here in 2017 I’ve been spending more time here later in the day looking for odes, rather than doing a quick search for birds first thing in the morning before heading elsewhere. The Covid-19 pandemic has made that even easier for me, as I am still working from home and can get out at lunch time for a quick check when the temperature has warmed up enough for many odes to be flying.

Mid-summer seems to be the best time for seeing a variety of odes at the ponds. While I have seen a few early-season species here, such as the Taiga Bluet and Spiny Baskettail, most odes that breed here don’t emerge until later in the summer. I’m not sure if the late start to spring had anything to do with it, but up until the end of June I found very few dragonflies here – skimmers are usually abundant throughout the season, but on June 30th I recorded a single Dot-tailed Whiteface and a single Twelve-spotted Skimmer along with a couple of Common Green Darners and Prince Baskettails that refused to land. Even the Eastern Forktails seemed down in numbers.

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The Return of the American Bittern

American Bittern

Last year an American Bittern showed up at the Eagleson storm water ponds on August 21, 2019. This is the last place I expected to see this species, since the ponds are mostly open water and this is a species that prefers dense cattail marches. It was hunting for fish along the west side of the shore of the central pond, tucked up against a patch of smartweed but completely visible to any who cared to look. It was a one-day wonder, and as no one reported seeing it after that date I figured that would be the last time I would see one at the ponds. Then, on August 12th, my friend Sophie – who first messaged me about the bittern last year – messaged me again after dinner to say that another bittern was at the pond – in the same area as the one last year! Is it a coincidence? Although I have not proof, I do think it is the same one, as many birds show a strong degree of fidelity to their summer breeding sites and a lesser degree of fidelity to their wintering areas. Perhaps they also keep track of particular stopover sites where the food is abundant to help ensure their survival.

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Spring Arrives in midst of the Pandemic

Mourning Cloak

It’s been another slow spring; although the snow was quick to melt this year without any flooding, it took until the last week of April before temperatures reached a daily high of more than 10°C, and not once did Ottawa reach 20°C – in fact our highest temperature last month was 16.8°C (normally the highest temperature falls in between 20.7°C and 28.5°C). This is only the eighth time since records began in 1870 that April temperatures stayed below 17°C. Migrants have been slow to trickle in, however, this may be a reflection of the greatly reduced number of trails and habitats I visit rather than the actual number of birds passing through, as eBird sightings have been steady despite the cooler temperatures and persistent north winds. Despite the weather and the smaller area in which I’ve been birding, I’ve had some good mammal sightings in the past few weeks, and have seen my first butterflies of the season.

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