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Unusual Overwintering Birds

Although it’s been a quiet winter for Boreal finches, Black-backed Woodpeckers, American Three-toed Woodpeckers, and other vagrant or irruptive birds here in Ottawa, we’ve still had a few interesting species overwintering here. A Red-shouldered Hawk was discovered at the Trail Road Landfill on January 25, 2020 and has remained in the area ever since – while most fly south in the fall, this species has been known to stay the winter here on occasion. In fact, my lifer Red-shouldered Hawk was an overwintering bird hanging around near Huntmar and Old Carp Roads in the winter of 2007-08. Their winter diet depends on mostly small mammals, although they may occasionally eat smaller birds such as sparrows, starlings, and doves. This would make the landfill an excellent place for a Red-shouldered Hawk to spend the winter; there are enough mice and small mammals to keep several Red-tailed Hawks well-fed, as well as a huge flock of starlings that spend the colder months here feeding on the remains of the sumac berries and landfill refuse. This winter several sparrows have been seen along the tree-line to the east of the dump, including the usual American Tree Sparrows, Dark-eyed Juncos, and two overwintering Song Sparrows.

I tried for the Red-shouldered Hawk twice after my return from Las Vegas, both on February 15th: I had no luck in the morning, so I returned later in the afternoon and spotted a car parked along the edge of the road. When I pulled over I scanned the area and noticed it perching on a post inside in the dump. This was the best view of a perching Red-shouldered Hawk I’ve had yet; it would be the best photo I’ve ever taken of one, except for the fence in the way – the snow banks were too deep for me to get close enough to put my camera against an opening in the chain link fence.

Red-shouldered Hawk

Although I’ve tried a few times to see it since, I never did find it again. They breed in the Ottawa area, returning in late March from their winter territories, although they are difficult to find. Stony Swamp is a repeat site for these small hawks; I’ve found an occupied nest once, and have seen birds flying over the pond at Sarsparilla Trail multiple times.

Carolina Wrens, on the other hand, are at the extreme northern limit of their range here in Ottawa. This species has been attempting to move further and further north, but often succumb to the harsh Canadian winters without making any real progress. Mud Lake is a repeat spot for this species, and indeed it is where I saw my life bird back in October 2011. One has been overwintering at Mud Lake again this winter; it was seen in the woods until late November 2019, went unreported for a month, and then was re-found on January 1, 2020. I was one of the people who saw it on New Year’s Day; the loud chattering sound caught my attention and I was eventually able to see this tiny dynamo perching out in the open. It has been present up until now, surviving a winter that has seen a lot of snow but very few really cold days (the dreaded Polar Vortex was noticeably absent this winter and was not missed). On February 23rd I caught up with it again in the same general area of the woods on the west side, which is where I’ve had all my Carolina Wrens now that I think about it. Once again I heard it before I saw it, and when it popped up on a tree stump to announce its general annoyance with the world I snapped a quick picture.

Carolina Wren

Just as quickly it flew across the trail and landed next to a huge fallen tree where it weaved in and out of its shadow before disappearing beneath a cluster of branches near the crown.

Birds like these have helped keep the winter boredom at bay. While they may not be able to compete with the birds seen at a tropical destination in the south, they are often difficult to see in the Ottawa area any time of year, and it’s great to get them for my year list now – and to get such great views!

New Year’s Hawks

Cooper’s Hawk

The year 2020 has arrived, and it’s a new decade as well as a new year. Usually it’s only the excitement of starting a brand new list from scratch that gets me going out in January, so on the first day of 2020 I got out early to see how many bird species I could find. As usual, I planned to check a couple of different habitats to maximize the number of potential species; my strategy consists of birding in open farmland, forests, along open water, with a stop at the local landfill. In the past couple of years I’ve only averaged about 17 or 18 species, which is not a particularly high number. My best New Year’s Day was back in 2017 where I counted 26 species – that year I visited Shirley’s Bay, Mud Lake, Jack Pine Trail, the Trail Road landfill, and the Eagleson ponds. The best birds of that day included Bald Eagle and White-throated Sparrow at Mud Lake, Horned Lark on Rushmore, and Gray Partridge on Eagleson. I also tallied 26 species back in 2012, where an unexpected Northern Flicker at Mud Lake, a Red-winged Blackbird at the Hilda Road feeders, and Glaucous and Great Black-backed Gulls at the landfill were the best birds of the day.

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October Summary

Wood Duck

October is a month of transition – we leave the hot days of summer behind (although September didn’t feel like summer this year, as the sultry 25-plus-degree temperatures of years past never materialized) and enter true fall, enjoying those crisp sunny days where the north wind carries a hint of winter and the brilliant orange and red foliage slowly starts to carpet the ground. The sun casts longer shadows as its zenith drops lower and lower in the sky each day, and the shorter days become evident when I have to leave for work in the dark in the morning. The birds, too, are transitioning, as most of the insect-eaters are now gone and the bulk of the seed-eaters – mainly sparrows – start moving through. It’s not going to be a good year for seeing finches in the south, as Ron Pittaway’s Winter Finch Forecast indicates bumper crops up north will keep the crossbills, redpolls and Pine Grosbeaks on their summer territory. Waterfowl and shorebirds are still moving through, although heavy rain toward the end of the month obliterated the remaining shorebird habitat along the Ottawa River – so much for the flocks of Dunlin and White-rumped Sandpipers I was hoping to find at Andrew Haydon Park again.

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Painted Ladies at Mud Lake

Painted Lady

Back in September 2017 our region experienced an incredible influx of Painted Lady butterflies. When I visited the Eagleson storm water ponds one afternoon just past the autumn equinox, I was surprised to see so many Painted Ladies nectaring on the flowers, and later learned that this butterfly had had an exceptionally successful breeding season in the northeast. We did not see the same numbers of this migratory species last year (2018), so it seemed that the enormous 2017 population explosion – stretching from Ontario all the way to P.E.I. – was a one-time occurrence.

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Dragonflies at Mud Lake

White Admiral

By the end of June it seemed that summer had finally arrived and the weather had returned to normal: the temperature had reached a consistent near 30°C, the state of emergency caused by the unprecedented spring flood had ended on June 12th, water levels were returning to normal, and the sun had finally come out! I was hoping that this meant that the dragonflies were also emerging on schedule again, and decided to head to Mud Lake on the last Saturday of June. Mud Lake is a fantastic place to see dragonflies in mid-summer, as all the dragonfly families except for Cordulegastridae – the spiketails – can be found there. Among the damselfly families both the spreadwings and pond damsels are well-represented; the broad-winged damselflies, mainly Ebony Jewelwings, are seen there from time to time. I had high hopes for my visit.
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The New Year’s Peregrine

Peregrine Falcon

It’s been a lackluster start to the year. I haven’t felt at all motivated to work on my year list or keep a winter list; with winter arriving in November this season, it’s hard to maintain any enthusiasm for the least birdiest time of the year here in Ottawa by the time January 1st rolls around. Still, I dutifully started my year list on New Year’s Day, my first species being Northern Cardinal when my neighbourhood pair arrived at my feeder just before dawn. From there I headed over to the Eagleson storm water ponds to pick up some waterfowl – five Canada Geese and over 200 mallards were present, with a bonus of ten Common Redpolls flying over. After that I picked up a few forest birds at the feeder at Jack Pine Trial, a Red-tailed Hawk at the Trail Road Landfill, and three Snow Buntings on Twin Elm, and called it a day. I spent only 2.5 hours birding and ended up with 17 species. Part of the lack of motivation comes from the fact that these species will all still be around in March when the sun feels warmer and temperature is milder. I even started the eBird challenge of doing one checklist a day to help inspire me, but with no daylight for birding before or after work, I was reduced to birding downtown at lunch during the week. After checking Confederation Park for a couple of days (the closest green space to my work), and finding only a single chickadee on one of those days, I soon gave up on that idea.
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Shorebirds and Water Birds

American Wigeon (male)

After Thanksgiving most birders in our region turn their attention from songbirds to water birds, as the bulk of the songbirds have moved through while many ducks, grebes, geese, and shorebirds are just starting to move south. This is about the time we transition from T-shirts to long sleeves, but this year it got cold quickly – the two days following Thanksgiving reached 27°C, then plunged to 11°C the following day. Since then the nights have been cold, hovering just above 0°C, while day-time temperatures have not broken the 20°C mark since, and several days in the past week remained in the single digits. The below-average temperatures may have spurred on some local bird movement, for some great birds have turned up after the drop in temperatures.

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Post Breeding Dispersal

Eastern Kingbird

On the first day of the long weekend I decided to look for odonates at Mud Lake. Specifically, I wanted to find some spreadwings, Fragile Forktails, darners, big river clubtails, or Swift River Cruisers, as I hadn’t seen any of these yet this season. I ended up seeing a couple of Slender Spreadwings, a few skimmer species, one big river clubtail perching on a rock in the river (likely a Black-shouldered Spinyleg), and little else in the way of odes. Unfortunately my best dragonfly of the day turned out to the first one of the day, a skimmer that flew in from the lake, landed, and hung from a leaf about two feet above my head. I could only see the underside and I registered only two things: that it had large coloured patches on the hindwings, and that it appeared red. My first thought was that it was a Calico Pennant, but the spots didn’t look quite right, and the dragonfly seemed larger than a Calico Pennant. I moved around the shrub to get a view of it from the top, but the dragonfly flew off before I could get a photo or even a better look. Only later did I wonder if it was a saddlebags of some sort, or perhaps even a Widow Skimmer whose colours I’d misjudged. I’m not sure what it was, but I really regretted not getting a photo or better look.

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Turtles and Warblers at Mud Lake

Snapping Turtle

Mid-May is the most exciting time to go birding in northeastern North America. The peak of migration has arrived, bringing the bulk of the warblers, flycatchers, cuckoos, vireos, a few shorebirds, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, Indigo Buntings, Scarlet Tanagers, Baltimore Orioles, and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks. On good days with fallout conditions, birds can be everywhere in migrant traps like Point Pelee, Rondeau Park, or Mud Lake here in Ottawa. Sometimes vagrants can occur with these expected species, particularly southern species that overshoot their breeding grounds and end up further north than their breeding range. The chance of seeing just such a rarity adds to the excitement and joy of seeing all our familiar summer residents again.

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The Winter Doldrums

Northern Pintail

The winter doldrums hit early, and hit hard. After a late start to winter, there were two feet of snow on the ground by Christmas, and by New Year’s Day we were in the grip of a week-long deep freeze with temperatures rising only as high as -17°C during the day – most of the time we were right around -20°C. From then on we suffered the usual bitter cold/messy thaw/winter storm cycle that characterizes our Ottawa winter throughout January and February. While a good number of Snowy Owls were present in the region, there were no winter finches, no Bohemian Waxwings, no northern woodpeckers, and no unusual owls or raptors (i.e. Boreal Owl, Gyrfalcon) to add excitement to the birding scene. Less and less I found a reason to go out, even on those weekends when it wasn’t snowing/raining or bitterly cold, and I lost the motivation to keep a winter list or work on my year list – anything that’s in the first two months of 2018 will still be around when the weather warms up in April.

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