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Snow Goose Spectacle

On October 30, 2015, a very rare Pink-footed Goose was discovered east of Casselman on Lafleche Road near the dump – the same landfill where a Gyrfalcon had spent the previous winter, feeding on the starlings and gulls attracted to the garbage. The Pink-footed Goose breeds in Greenland and Iceland, and normally winters in western Europe. Sometimes individuals wander over to North America, where they are usually found along the coast of the Atlantic Ocean. It has never been seen in Ontario before – until now.

This mega-rarity has been traveling with a massive flock of Snow Geese which has been feeding in the fields around Lafleche for weeks; estimates range from 80,000 to 150,000 of these pristine black and white geese. Lucky observers have been able to pick out Canada, Cackling, Ross’s and Greater White-fronted Geese among the huge flock, making for a total of six species in one field (our seventh species, the Brant, is most often seen along the Ottawa River, and I’ve never heard of any foraging in fields the way our other goose species do).

When it was first discovered two weekends ago, I debated whether to try to see this bird; I went to see the Cattle Egret instead, reasoning that one white bird in a green field would be easier to spot than one grayish-brown goose in a sea of white, gray and “blue” geese. Also, the Cattle Egret was much closer to home and I didn’t want to make the long drive out past Casselman alone. So when Deb said she was available for birding this weekend, it seemed like a good idea to go. Even if we missed the Pink-footed Goose, the spectacle of tens of thousands of Snow Geese and the chance of seeing Ross’s and Greater White-fronted Geese would be worth it.

Snow Geese in front of Lafleche Dump

Snow Geese in front of Lafleche Dump

Deb and I began our scan from Highway 138. About half of the flock was feeding on the grass in front of us, while another large group was much further back and closer to the Queensway. We scanned the closer flock from the road, though the wind blowing across the open field and the high-speed traffic passing close behind us made conditions less than ideal. It didn’t take long to decide to look for a closer vantage and, seeing some birders with a spotting scope on Lafleche Road, we decided to get away from the traffic and watch the birds from there.

We found Jon Ruddy with a few other birders, although he hadn’t managed to pick out the Pink-footed Goose by the time we had reached them. However, they did find a Lesser Black-backed Gull among a large flock of gulls, and both Deb and I were able to view it through the scope. Once again I realized I my own scope could use an upgrade – something with the capabilities of say, the Hubble Telescope. I was also able to pick out a Great Black-backed Gull in the flock, but was not able to confidently identify any of the “gray-backed” gulls due to the distance.

Since this new vantage point put us even further away from the geese, we decided to return to our initial spot and scope the birds again from the highway. We had no better luck in finding the Pink-footed Goose, though a juvenile Greater White-fronted Goose was a great consolation prize. I spotted a grayish-brown bird in with the flock and realized it wasn’t a juvenile Snow Goose – it was darker than the juvenile Snow Geese, and slightly smaller with no pale fringing on the wing feathers. Both the bill and the legs were orangish-yellow – not dark. My suspicions were confirmed when an adult Snow Geese snapped at it at least twice, chasing it off. Jon got a look at it before it disappeared into the crowd, and it was he who identified it for us. I had never really thought to study up on the juvenal plumage of the Greater White-fronted Goose, as all of the ones reported in our area tend to be adults. Deb was especially happy as it was a lifer for her.

Snow Geese in flight

Snow Geese in flight

Deb and I tried searching for the Pink-footed Goose from one more vantage point closer to the Queensway, again without any luck. A few other birders were looking there as well, but not one of the birders we talked to had seen the Pink-footed Goose that morning. By that time the birds were getting restless, taking off and landing further away, then taking off and landing closer, which made a prolonged study difficult. We ended up leaving after about an hour and a half; not only were the birds uncooperative, but the constant wind blowing across the open fields was terrible. Still, the long drive out to Lafleche was worth it, just for the spectacle alone. Estimates ranged from 70,000 to 90,000 Snow Goose in the fields at the junction of the two highways, with another huge flock somewhere north of the Queensway. I was thrilled that we managed to pick out the juvenile Greater White-fronted Goose, too, as it is only the second one I have ever seen. A lone Canada Goose flying over was the third species we saw that day, making it a three-goose day for us and one we won’t soon forget.

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A Winter Lifer

Snowy Owl

Snowy Owl

It’s been a long time since my last blog post. I haven’t been going out birding much this winter; the cold has been intolerable, with most mornings starting off well below -20°C. Even the daytime highs have been well below seasonal this year – I can think of only a few occasions where they have risen above -10C. In fact, this winter has been so cold that on February 25th, the Rideau Canal broke the record for the number of consecutive days it has remained open: 47, the most since it first opened 45 years ago. Normally heavy snowstorms and a rainy mid-winter thaw result in the canal’s closure for at least a couple of days each season. Not this year.

We haven’t received many heavy snowstorms since the new year, but the few that have occurred on the weekend have started early in the day. Twice I went out birding first thing in the morning and only managed to spend an hour outdoors before a curtain of snow descended. Ottawa actually hasn’t received a lot of snow this winter, but since we haven’t had any significant thaws either, the snow cover is fairly deep.

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The OFO Convention

Hundreds of Canada Geese stage in Ottawa during fall migration,

Hundreds of Canada Geese stage in Ottawa during fall migration, giving birders an opportunity to sort through them for different species and odd forms.

Between September 26 and 28, 2014, the Ontario Field Ornithologists hosted their annual convention in Ottawa. While the evening programs included banquets and social events such as the OFO Annual General Meeting, “Birds and Beers”, “Birding Jeopardy” with Sarah Rupert, presentations from Bruce Di Labio and keynote speaker Chris Earley (whose books I own!), and the presentation of the Distinguished Ornithologist Award, the majority of the daylight hours were spent birding Ottawa’s hot spots with leaders provided from the OFNC, the Club des ornithologues de l’Outaouais, Bird Studies Canada, the Pembroke Area Field Naturalists, the Innis Point Bird Observatory, and the Wild Bird Care Center. I was co-leader with various other OFNC members for trips on each of the three days, with full day trips to the East End on Friday and Sunday and an afternoon walk along the Ottawa River on Saturday.

The weather was fantastic all three days, and although most birders would agree that a cold north wind would have helped to bring in the migrants, I don’t think too many people complained about the hot, sunny 27°C afternoons.

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The End of Winter

Porcupine

Porcupine

February has ended, and so has the winter birding season. Although the weather is by no means spring-like just yet (we just received another 30 cm of snow last week!), it is time to put the 2012-13 winter list away and look forward to the first spring migrants returning. Already the cardinals, chickadees, and House Finches are singing their spring songs, and just last week I heard the first Mourning Dove calling in the neighbourhood. This is especially significant as I haven’t seen or heard any doves in the neighbourhood at all this past winter.

Deb and I have been going out birding nearly every weekend. At the beginning of February we took a drive out to the east end where we found a flock of Snow Buntings on Giroux Road together with a single Horned Lark – a new bird for my winter list. The Snow Buntings were the first ones I’d seen in the Ottawa area – we had some at Amherst Island in January – and when they landed on top of a telephone wire I rolled the window down and took a few pictures.

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Great Gray Owls in Ottawa: Baiting and Abetting

Great Gray Owl with store-bought mouseOwl baiting. These two words cause more arguments between birders and bird photographers than any others.

Owl baiting is the feeding of live mice, usually bought from pet stores, to wild owls with the purpose of obtaining photographs of the owl in flight or making the kill. It is not “feeding” the owl, otherwise people would simply let a whole box of mice loose in the field every day and leave, allowing the owl to find and catch them on its own. Instead, the mice are released one at a time, allowing those photographing it to capture dramatic images of the owl flying in and swooping down on its prey.

In early January, four Great Gray Owls were discovered on NCC land near Green’s Creek in Ottawa’s east end. Although the presence of these birds was kept quiet at first, eventually a local photographer saw or heard about them and sent a barrage of emails to Ontbirds which not only gave precise details on how to get to the owls, but also a Google map of the area, a link to the Ottawa Citizen in which he had been quoted, and, of course, links to his photos. The result of this email campaign was entirely predictable: dozens of people began showing up at the site, and the baiting began.

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Small Geese

Cackling Goose

The weather last weekend was not conducive to spending a lot of time by the river. It was cold, for one thing; the temperature rose only a few degrees above zero each day. It was overcast, for another, which meant no there was no warming sunshine to ease the chill. Worst of all, it was windy – and out along the Ottawa River, the wind coming off the water just blasts the cold right into you. Still, I stopped by Andrew Haydon Park on Saturday in the hope of spotting some interesting birds around the man-made ponds. I still needed Cackling Goose for my year list, and Andrew Haydon is one of the best spots to find this species in the fall. I was also hoping there might be some unusual gulls and waterbirds around too, despite the heavy winds; it was worth a look!

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A Blast of Summer in March

Eastern Comma

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.

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