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The Hawks of Stony Swamp

Northern Goshawk

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.

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A Slow Start to Spring

Common Grackle

By the end of March temperatures were back to seasonal again, with daily highs between 6 and 8°C. Then it got cold again in early April, with snow in the first week. The birds were coming back, though, and with a long Easter weekend right at the beginning of the month, I was able to get out and spend some time looking for migrants.

On Good Friday (March 30th) I counted 20 species at the Eagleson ponds, including at least five Song Sparrows, two American Tree Sparrows, one Dark-eyed Junco, and eight robins. Blackbirds were back in good numbers; I observed at least five male Red-winged Blackbirds and 15 Common Grackles! In the water, a male Common Merganser had joined the five Hooded Mergansers – two males and a female were swimming in the northern pond while a male and female were swimming together in the southern pond.

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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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Winter Delayed

It’s been a strange few days – normally the weather isn’t this warm at the beginning of December. However on Tuesday and Wednesday the temperature rose to 10°C, and yesterday was still nice at 5°C. I went to Jack Pine Trail where the best bird was a dark morph Rough-legged Hawk flying over the marsh at the second boardwalk. The OFNC feeder was empty, and the birds were voracious – I was mobbed by chickadees, Red-Breasted Nuthatches, and Blue Jays as soon as I reached the feeder area. Even the Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers were interested in the peanuts I threw onto the ground. Surprisingly, there were no sparrows around – there are usually American Tree Sparrows and juncos in the feeder area and the trail leading into the woods where they feed on the seed left on the trail.

It was a little chilly this morning at -3°C, but the river is still wide open so I headed to Andrew Haydon Park to look for waterfowl. There wasn’t much on the river, but a pair of White-winged Scoters and a Black Scoter swimming with the Common Goldeneyes were nice to see. The Black Scoter was swimming fairly close to shore for a diving duck!

Black Scoter

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End of Season Bugs

Asian Multicoloured Lady Beetle

Although I went birding this morning, it was the bugs today that stole the show. The temperature reached an unseasonable 18°C, and with the sun shining brightly until about mid-afternoon, this was probably the last nice day of the year. We haven’t had any hard frosts yet, so a lot of insects were on the wing today. I overslept, so I skipped my usual walk at the storm water ponds and headed out to Old Quarry Trail around 9:00 to search for Black-backed Woodpeckers. I didn’t find any, although I was happy to find a Pileated Woodpecker and a couple of Fox Sparrows deep in the woods. This is one of my favourite sparrows, with its rusty red spots on its chest and red face and back.

I also found a singing male Purple Finch at the boardwalk and saw an accipiter fly over – it seemed small, so perhaps it was the same Sharp-shinned Hawk I saw last week. There were still several Golden-crowned Kinglets around, and I heard one or two Ruby-crowned Kinglets as well.

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Turkeys and Clear-winged Moths

Hummingbird Clearwing

On the last day of July I spent some time at Old Quarry Trail, a place I hadn’t visited since March. I always like to visit this trail at least a couple of times each season; it’s great for robins, waxwings, Black-backed Woodpeckers, and porcupines in winter, warblers in migration, and a variety of breeding birds and odes in summer. It has a nice mix of habitats, with mixed coniferous-deciduous forest, a large, cattail-filled marsh, vernal ponds, and an open field which are all home to a variety of species. Summer, however, is my favourite time for visiting, as I’ve found a number of interesting odes there during the height of dragonfly season, including a Williamson’s Emerald patrolling the boardwalk a few years back.

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Northern Shrike!

Northern Shrike

Northern Shrike

The temperature dropped by the time Saturday rolled around, and it was only -19°C when I headed out birding. I was eager to add some more birds to my brand new year list, and started off the morning with a walk at Old Quarry Trail, hoping that the trails would be much quieter first thing in the morning given the frigid cold. I still needed Pileated Woodpecker for my list, and was hoping to find a few other surprises such as Ruffed Grouse, Northern Goshawk, an owl, some winter finches, or even a Black-backed Woodpecker. Any mammals would be welcome, too, as Old Quarry Trail is a good spot to see White-tailed Deer and porcupines. When I arrived I set off on my usual walk along the northern-most trail. There were only two other cars in the parking lot, and for most of my walk I saw no one on the trail.

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