Migration has been strange this year. Because of the lengthy cold spell at the beginning of May it seemed as if migration had stalled; for so long I felt as though I were waiting for it to begin, then things happened so quickly that now I wonder whether it has passed me by. The White-crowned Sparrows that usually show up in my backyard every year between May 3rd and 5th didn’t arrive until the 14th; the Common Terns that arrive at the Eagleson Ponds between May 10th and May 14th didn’t arrive until May 19th. Neither species stayed long, either. The terns were only there for one day before moving on, instead of spending two or three days. It is harder to know if the White-crowned Sparrow I saw over the course of a few days was the same one or a different one, as many have been singing in our area in the middle of the month.
The warblers came, and the warblers went. I’ve had several Black-throated Blue Warblers this year, and many repeat sightings of local breeding species – but of the ones that only pass through, I’ve sometimes only been lucky to get one: one Cape May Warbler, one Blackburnian Warbler, one Tennessee Warbler, one Bay-breasted Warbler. Again, is this a reflection of my spending time mainly in Kanata south, rather than heading for the migrant traps along the river? There have been excellent reports from the usual spots (Mud Lake, Andrew Haydon Park), but even as the city parks reopened on May 6th and the NCC parking lots reopened on May 22nd as a result of declining Covid-19 cases in the city, I’ve been reluctant to go to the normal spring hotspots to avoid the crowds that tend to gather there, both birding and non-birding alike. This has less to do with any fear of the coronavirus than my preference for quiet birding experiences, away from the loud chatter and narrow, crowded trails that both increase exponentially as the spring wears on and weather warms up.
Butterflies emerge in late winter or early spring as soon as the first warm, sunny days arrive and the temperatures reach about 13-15°C. This could happen as early as mid-March here in Ottawa, although the butterflies usually don’t stay out for very long – the nights are still cold in late March and early April, and they may not become fully active until the weather warms up to a consistent 15°C in late April. The first butterflies that emerge are those that spent the winter in their adult form, hibernating in mixed or deciduous woodlands beneath the bark of trees, in brush piles, or in other nooks and crannies where they are protected from the wind and biting cold Arctic air. Only a few species hibernate as adults; others overwinter as caterpillars, eggs, or pupae contained within their protective chrysalises. Still others are unable to tolerate Canadian winters in any form, and migrate south to warmer regions – the Monarch is the most familiar of these.
April has arrived, and I think spring has finally arrived with it. We’ve finally had some nice, sunny days and the weather has warmed up, so Deb and I finally got together to do some birding on the second day of April. We headed over to Mud Lake, where we only managed to tally 20 species; this is usually a great place to take in spring migration, but there was surprisingly little difference in the species seen since my previous visit on March 18th. The best birds there were an American Tree Sparrow, three Wood Ducks flying along the river, and an adult Cooper’s Hawk in the woods. Once again a male and female Downy Woodpecker pair came readily to my hand to take some food. I am now noting these birds in eBird, as I’ve been hand-feeding them for a couple of years now. The starlings singing near the filtration plant were of special interest, as we heard them imitating the calls of a Killdeer, an Eastern Wood-pewee, and even a Tree Frog!
My goal on Sunday was to visit the Eagleson Ponds briefly before heading out to the woods, but once again I had such a fantastic time there that I couldn’t bring myself to leave. I spent almost 3.5 hours there, completely circled the ponds on the south side of Emerald Meadows Drive only once (but backtracked multiple times), and found 32 bird species together. I also saw two odes – a Common Green Darner and a couple of bluets – and four or five butterfly species. It still amazes me how terrific these little man-made ponds have been these past two and a half months; and I don’t even need to drive there!
After Saturday’s rather dull outing I decided to get up early on Sunday and hit the storm water ponds before heading out to Jack Pine Trail. I wanted to look for warblers and water birds – particularly shorebirds – before checking Jack Pine for warblers, thrushes, and other forest birds. If time permitted, I hoped to stop in at the Richmond Lagoons to see if the recent rains had refilled the ponds there. Unfortunately for my plans I had such a fabulous time at the storm water ponds that I didn’t make it to the other spots.
Sparrows are moving through right now, and when I returned from my trip on Friday afternoon, I was delighted to find three different species in my yard: a Dark-eyed Junco, a White-crowned Sparrow, and two Chipping Sparrows. I was a bit surprised to see the junco still hanging around, and was happy that the Chipping Sparrows had arrived – they are very common summer residents in my neighbourhood, and often bring their babies to my feeder later in the season once they have fledged. Unlike these two species, however, the White-crowned Sparrow is an uncommon spring visitor to my yard – my first sighting occurred back in May 2006, around the time I got bit by the birding bug. As I was not an avid eBird user back then, my next record is from May 2011, when another single bird appeared, and my last record is from May 2012, when two birds showed up. All sightings occurred between May 4th and May 8th, and most individuals only stayed one day.
Easter was early this year, which is always a bit disappointing as a birder – when it falls at the end of March, migration is just getting under way and there isn’t the same variety of species around as there would be later in April. Still, I was looking forward to adding a few birds to my year list, so I headed over to Mud Lake yesterday (Easter Sunday). I still haven’t seen a Great Blue Heron or Brown-headed Cowbird yet this year, and it’s just about time for Eastern Phoebes, Northern Flickers, Tree Swallows and Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers to arrive back on territory. I was also curious as to whether the Northern Mockingbird was still around – there haven’t been any reports, but then I don’t know if anyone has gone and looked for it. With a forecast high of 13°C, it seemed a nice day to go for a walk around the lake, though it was still close to 0°C when I headed out.
Birders love it when the Easter long weekend falls in April. The weather is usually nice, and the early migrants have already begun to arrive. If it’s warm enough, the first frogs, butterflies and snakes will have emerged. Easter fell on the first weekend of April this year, and although winter and spring are still battling for supremacy, I was still able to find plenty of birds for my year list.
I started Good Friday with a walk at the Beaver Trail where I unknowingly flushed six ducks hidden in the marsh at the back, at least two of which were Wood Ducks. A few more Red-winged Blackbirds had arrived, and I heard a single Common Grackle call near the Wild Bird Care Centre. Blackbirds flew over several times while I was there, but the day was overcast and I didn’t get a good look at them. The best bird was a pair of Golden-crowned Kinglets in the woods near the meadow – this species was a year bird for me.
The weather for the past few weeks has remained mostly below seasonable. It has been slow to reach the freezing mark during the day, but I think we’ve finally reached the point where the daily high is now above 0°C. The Ottawa River is still frozen except for the rapids at Mud Lake and Bate Island, and a couple of centimeters of frozen snow still blanket the woods. At least the Rideau River has finally begun to open up on both sides of the 417 bridge. The City usually starts blasting the river open in March to prevent flooding, and although I read that the City would be blasting the ice throughout the month of March, as of the last time I visited Hurdman Park (March 31st) there was no evidence of any workers on the river in that area.
Late October – it’s not my favourite time of year for birding. The mornings are often cold, requiring a hat and gloves, and the shrubby edge habitats I wrote about previously are deathly quiet. Gone are the numerous warblers and vireos and flycatchers of yestermonth; pishing may bring out a couple of chickadees, kinglets, sparrows, or if I’m really lucky, a late Yellow-rumped Warbler. American Tree Sparrows and Snow Buntings, winter residents both, have just begun to arrive. I haven’t seen any Snow Buntings yet, but when I visited Hurdman Park on Thursday I saw three American Tree Sparrows as well as several starlings and robins feeding on the wild grapes. I also saw a Northern Flicker and Yellow-rumped Warbler. It’s getting late in the season, so every sighting of these birds could be my last.