A Storm of Warblers

Palm Warbler

I usually take the second week of May off every year, and head south to spend time birding Point Pelee National Park with my mother. I was unable to make the trip this year, but as I needed a break from work and a change of scenery I spent three nights in Westport instead (more to follow in a separate post). Spending time at Murphy’s Point Provincial Park, Frontenac Provincial Park, and Foley Mountain Conservation Area was fantastic, but unlike Point Pelee, these areas are not migration hotspots or migrant traps, and I had to work hard to get as many species as I did. As a result, I wasn’t expecting much when I returned to Ottawa on Thursday, but it seemed the floodgates had finally opened and the birds were moving north in large numbers. I went out Friday morning, and although the temperature hadn’t improved – the day was overcast and the temperature was still below normal for this time of year – the birds must have been getting anxious to get back to their breeding grounds, for the variety of birds at the Eagleson ponds was amazing.
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Birds of Early Fall

Winter Wren

By the end of September there is a change in the air. There are fewer warbler species and more sparrows and thrushes and kinglets as the temperature starts to fall and the nights grow longer than the days. On the last Saturday in September I started my day with a walk at the Eagleson ponds, where only a few Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs remained after the recent rains caused the water levels to rise. The Great Black-backed Gull, three heron species, and a single kingfisher were still present as well. About 150 Canada Geese were swimming throughout the ponds; these were new, as only one or two families had stayed the summer. The only Red-winged Blackbirds I saw were all in a single flock of about two dozen birds flying over, and while Song Sparrows were still numerous, the first Dark-eyed Junco had arrived. A single Ruby-crowned Kinglet, two Yellow-rumped Warblers, and two Blackpoll Warblers were signs that the season was changing.

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Shorebirds of the Eagleson Ponds

Wilson’s Snipe

I had a few days off in the middle of September and spent them birding. The weather was fantastic from Thursday through Saturday, and I started my days at the Eagleson storm water ponds which usually has a great diversity of species during migration. The habitat has been excellent for shorebirds, as the water levels were low enough for Lesser Yellowlegs to walk around the middle of the central pond. However, I was really hoping to find some different warbler and songbird species to add to my list, and checked each grove of trees carefully. I wasn’t happy when I found only one warbler species (a Common Yellowthroat) in the 5 hours I spent there total, but the diversity of shorebirds was amazingly excellent. Several were foraging quite close to shore, too, making them easy to identify! I found nine species altogether, which is terrific for an urban pond system so close to human habitation.

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The Eagleson Ponds: Adding to the species list

Heath Bee Fly

In September 2016, I started a project on iNaturalist to document the non-avian species I’ve found at the Eagleson Road ponds just after the reconstruction that took place in 2015 and 2016 was completed. I was chiefly interested in the mammals and odonates (I use eBird, of course, for birds), largely in part because I wondered if the beaver would be back after its lodge was destroyed and if there were any Rainbow Bluets or Fragile Forktails left. Then, seeing the extensive wildflower plantings after the reconstruction, I began to wonder what species of butterflies might feed here. Since then I’ve started documenting all kinds of insects, turtles, plants and mammals that I can identify on my own, and even some that I can’t…one of the functions of iNaturalist is to connect experts and knowledgeable nature enthusiasts with those who aren’t as experienced in order to assist with identifications. I have hesitated to use the site for this purpose, because identifications are done entirely by volunteers, and (a) there is no guarantee that your species will be identified, particularly for lesser known or more difficult genera (for example, I have some photos of Red-blue Checkered Beetles from July 2016 that have yet to be confirmed); and (b) there is no guarantee that the observation will be identified correctly. Generally the more people who add their identification to an observation, the better; the main identification is decided by a two-thirds majority, and once it has received two or more confirmatory identifications it is considered “research grade” and can be used by scientists for their own projects.

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Herons etc.

Black-crowned Night Heron (sub-adult)

During the August long weekend I visited the Eagleson storm water ponds a couple of times to check out the shorebird habitat – the southern pond is starting to dry up, leaving a huge swath of the smelly, muddy pond bottom exposed. The usual Spotted Sandpipers and Killdeer were present, but at least four Lesser Yellowlegs, one Greater Yellowlegs, and five Least Sandpipers had joined them. It’s still early in shorebird migration, so I expect the diversity will increase as the season progresses.

The number of herons hunting at the ponds has also increased lately, which is typical this time of year as the birds disperse from their breeding grounds to look for good feeding areas. At least two Great Blue Herons, two Great Egrets, and three Black-crowned Night Herons are around; I haven’t seen any Green Herons yet so far, but expect they will show up shortly. Because there are so many herons here, and because they perch and feed out in the open, they make excellent targets of study; I shouldn’t be surprised that they are starting to draw the attention of local photographers. I ran into one this weekend specifically to photograph the egrets and herons; doubtless there are others.

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Digger Wasps and Migratory Insects

Great Golden Digger Wasp

On Saturday, July 28th I wasn’t able to get out birding, so on Sunday I headed over to the Eagleson storm water ponds. There were only two species of herons (Great Blue Heron and Great Egret) and one species of sandpiper (Spotted Sandpiper) but the Osprey flew over and hovered over the main pond before flying off, and I found a Red-eyed Vireo feeding its offspring. This was a surprise to me as I have heard this species singing in this area only twice this year, both times in May, and thought that they were just passing through. Red-eyed Vireos sing long into the summer, well into the afternoon, and are easily detected on their breeding grounds, so I’m curious as to where the female actually nested – here at the ponds, or somewhere nearby. All the usual bird species were still present, including a few Barn Swallows and a Northern Flicker flying over the pond, but Common Grackles were noticeably absent – they have now dispersed from the ponds, and last weekend I had an even dozen at my feeder, mostly juveniles!
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Black-bellied Plovers

By late May songbird migration has just passed its peak, and while most of the expected species have arrived back in our region, there is still a possibility of seeing something new. I headed out to the Eagleson Storm Water Ponds early on the morning of Saturday, May 26, hoping for something just as awesome as the Olive-sided Flycatcher or the Blackburnian Warbler I’d seen on May 21, but not really expecting much. Indeed, there were fewer songbirds than I was hoping for, with only three warbler species (Common Yellowthroat, American Redstart, and Yellow Warbler), a singing Purple Finch, and a singing Red-eyed Vireo, all of which are common local breeders in our region. There were no unexpected flycatchers, grosbeaks, tanagers, wrens, mimids or other migrating species stopping over briefly at the ponds before continuing their journey elsewhere.

I wasn’t expecting any new shorebirds to show up, but when I arrived at the central pond and scanned the edges, I was shocked to hear the plaintive whistle of a plover and see a group of black and white birds on the far side of the channel. I got as close as I could and counted eight Black-bellied Plovers scattered in the muck – four males in near-pristine breeding plumage, three presumed females whose juvenile appearance was belied by the darkening bellies and faces, and one indeterminate bird in non-breeding plumage.

Black-bellied Plovers

This is only the second time I’ve seen this species at the ponds – the first time was on September 18, 2016, when I’d watched a juvenile bird fly in and land on the mudflats shortly before a flock of 39 (!!!) Killdeer flew in and immediately engulfed the plover. Spring sightings, however, are much less common, as water levels in our region are generally still too high to provide the extensive mudflats that attract most plovers and shorebirds. Conditions at the ponds have been good, however, as water levels are controlled less by runoff from melting snow and more by the amount of rainfall our area receives – we’ve only had one day of rainfall over 20 mm since the beginning of April, and a handful of days where the rainfall totaled more than 10 mm. As a result, the mucky pond edges and developing mudflats have attracted a good number shorebirds this spring, including Least Sandpipers, Semipalmated Plovers, Greater Yellowlegs, and the usual Killdeer and Spotted Sandpipers.

Black-bellied Plovers

I took a few photos, but the distance and overcast conditions didn’t do these birds justice. I was surprised by how frequently they called, until I realized that they seemed bothered by the number of people walking along the trail above them. Whenever someone jogged past, they hustled off just a little further away, giving their whistled calls. I guess the amount of human activity proved to be too much, for they were gone by the time I circled back.

Black-bellied Plovers

The Black-bellied Plover is one of my favourite shorebirds, and one that I don’t see too often. It is the largest of the North American plovers, and with its black face and belly, white headdress, and sharp black-and-white checkerboard pattern on its back, definitely one of our most striking. As it breeds in the Arctic tundra, migration is the only time we see this species; look for Black-bellied Plovers on mudflats, beaches, or in plowed fields.