The end of December dragged for me, with a few remaining species needed for my year list that I just couldn’t catch up with (Barred Owl, Northern Shrike, American Three-toed Woodpecker) and a few I didn’t make the effort to see (Barrow’s Goldeneye, Tufted Titmouse). I ended the year with 185 species recorded in Ottawa (plus two others in Nova Scotia), which is lower than the previous two years – one good thing about the Covid 19 pandemic is being able to work from home and go birding in the morning rather than commuting! This number was higher than the 177 species seen in 2019, which makes it similar to pre-pandemic life (also known as “the before times”).
So when January 1st finally rolled around I was ready to get out and start my brand new year list off with a bang. Last year at this time I was still undergoing active medical treatment – including surgery late in the month – and was not feeling well enough to do much birding. I managed to do only one full birding outing in all of January 2022, a quick trip to the Eagleson Ponds on New Year’s Day. I ended my day with 9 species and the month with 17 – the rest of my January 2022 birds were seen from my window at home or on trips to the hospital. My goal for the first day of 2023 was to see more species than I had seen during the entire month of January 2022, and I succeeded.
It was a mild day. We had just received 15 cm of snow a few days earlier on top of the 25 cm of snow received in the Christmas Eve storm, but most of it had been washed away by a heavy rainfall on December 31st. I headed to Jack Pine Trail first for two reasons: there was still a great variety of species there despite the OFNC feeder being removed after the May 2022 derecho (the downed trees had destroyed the clearing in which it hung), and I was still searching for the American Three-toed Woodpecker that had been discovered there on December 12, 2022.
June is my favourite month of the year. This is the month when most insects begin to emerge, their bright wings bringing life and colour to forests, meadows, ponds and backyard gardens. Birds are in full song, and the air is fragrant with all the flowers in bloom. While butterflies and dragonflies become my main focus this time of year, this month I had a second agenda: to continue to look for evidence of breeding for the third Ontario Breeding Bird Atlas. Since I am still working from home as a result of the pandemic, I devoted my morning weekday walks to looking for birds and my longer weekend excursions to looking for all types of wildlife, particularly dragonflies. I thought birding would become boring once migration ended and the resident birds settled down into the more predictable routine of nesting season, but to my surprise I was wrong.
The fisher (Pekania pennanti) is the holy grail of mammals for many naturalists in eastern Ontario. Just as the Gyrfalcon is the most sought after species for local birders, or the Smooth Green Snake is the most sought after snake species for local herpers, the fisher is one of those near-mythical species that few naturalists claim to have actually seen, and seems to exist more in rumour than in fact. Although there seems to be a good number of them present in our region – particularly in Stony Swamp with its many trails giving access to the deeper parts of the forest – they are very elusive, preferring to hide themselves deep in the bush where trails don’t exist and few humans are curious enough to venture. Every now and then you hear of one showing up on a trail cam, or of someone finding a road-killed specimen, or – very rarely – of someone catching a brief glimpse of one before it disappears. A live encounter where the observer actually gets a prolonged look at one – or even photos! – might be even more rare than the impossible-to-find Gyrfalcon.
The first butterflies that emerge in the spring – usually in late March or April – are the ones that hibernated as adults in deciduous woodlots: Mourning Cloaks, Eastern Commas and Compton Tortoiseshells are the first ones I see every year on those warm, sunny days when the temperature starts reaching 13°C. The next wave emerges when it warms up long enough for those that hibernated in the chrysalis stage to emerge as adults: the elfins and azures and whites and swallowtails are included in this group, although I usually see the first Northern Spring Azures and Henry’s Elfins first, in late April and early May, with the Canadian Tiger Swallowtail and Black Swallowtail following in mid-May. Next come the species that overwintered as mature caterpillars, such as the duskywings – the first skippers to appear each year – and the crescents. All of these are typically seen in May in our region, while butterflies that overwinter as younger caterpillars (the browns and fritillaries) and eggs (coppers and hairstreaks) don’t emerge until June and July. This means that while you will never see all of Ottawa’s butterflies on the wing at the same time, the diversity is ever-changing up until the end of July. Even after that the appearance of regular but unpredictable influxes of migrants keeps things exciting throughout August and September: large population booms of Red Admirals, Painted Ladies, American Ladies and Monarchs might mean a wildly successful breeding season here in Ottawa, while smaller numbers of Orange Sulphurs, Common Buckeyes and American Snouts often find their way here from their breeding range further south.
By mid-October sparrows are moving through our region in good numbers. Breeding residents such as Chipping Sparrow, Swamp Sparrow, Song Sparrow and Field Sparrow are just getting ready to leave, while winter residents such as American Tree Sparrow and Dark-eyed Junco are just beginning to arrive. Other species, such as the White-crowned Sparrow and Fox Sparrow which spend neither the summer nor winter here, are now passing through. White-throated Sparrows are also found in large numbers this time of year, although any remaining summer residents have been joined by numerous individuals from the north on their way to their winter grounds. It is a marvelous time of year to look for mixed flocks in scrubby fields and forest edges; sometimes you might get lucky and find something completely unexpected!
Perhaps more than Mud Lake, the one place I enjoy visiting most during migration and the summer breeding season is Stony Swamp. Pre-Covid it was always less busy than Mud Lake, especially early in the morning; however, after the pandemic hit the trails have become really popular and the parking lots are getting full before 10:00 on the weekend. If my goal is to look for birds, I try to get there before 7:00 am; but if it’s insects I’m looking for it doesn’t matter so much, as insects are not as likely to be disturbed by people, and I arrive whenever it’s convenient for me. It’s still quieter during the week than on the weekend, so I arrived at the Beaver Trail at 8:15 hoping to find some good birds as well some interesting insects as the day warmed up.
The beginning of June is an exciting time as more and more insects start emerging from their winter dormancy. I had the second week of June off work, and with the COVID-19 pandemic putting an end to travel plans – we could not go to the Atlantic provinces without a mandatory 14-day isolation period upon arrival, and the Canada-U.S. border is still closed to non-essential travel – I planned to spend the week exploring trails near me and looking for birds and bugs close to home. My plan was to get out and see some new places, and hopefully find some new species, and the weather actually looked nice for the whole week – plenty of sun and no rain in the forecast.
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.
I spent some time at Jack Pine Trail this morning. It was a good walk, if not terribly productive. My best bird sighting was that of a Broad-winged Hawk – or rather, a family of Broad-winged Hawks, as I heard two birds calling incessantly in the woods and saw another soaring in the sky. I was wondering if the two calling birds were youngsters, as the calls were shortened – “chick-ee!” rather than the longer, drawn out whistled “chick-eeeeeee”. The one in flight gave the full call, which made me think it was an adult responding. I tried to get a look at the two birds, as they weren’t too far off the trail; however, the thick brush prevented me from seeing where they were perched. Other good birds there that were still singing included Alder Flycatcher, Winter Wren, Eastern Towhee, Black-and-white Warbler, and Black-throated Green Warbler.
Stony Swamp in Ottawa’s west end is home to a variety of different flora and fauna. The trails are popular among families for hand-feeding the chickadees and among birders for finding Black-backed Woodpeckers and finches such as Pine Siskins in the winter. There are many different ecosystems within the conservation area – such as rocky alvars, ponds, marshes, streams, deciduous and coniferous forests – which makes this one of the most biodiverse conservation areas within the city.
Despite the large number of birds that breed, overwinter, or migrate through Stony Swamp each year, it is relatively under-birded. The closest trail is only five minutes from my home in Kanata South, so I spend a lot of time within the conservation area – particularly in the warmer months. However, I very rarely come across other birders or photographers on the weekends, probably because it’s not a migrant trap like Mud Lake – the birds are spread out more, making them more difficult to find. Still, the trails are worth checking for pockets of warblers in the spring or flocks of finches in the winter, in addition to all the birds that breed here in the summer: Virginia Rails, Pied-Billed Grebes, Eastern Towhees, Field Sparrows, Swamp Sparrows, Black-throated Green Warblers, Black-and-white Warblers, Eastern Phoebes, and so much more.