As expected, November turned out to be a dark, cold and dismal month. Temperatures fell to zero or below every single night, we had our first snowstorm on Remembrance Day (November 11th), and temperatures dropped to a frigid -10°C for a week in the middle of the month. Weather records indicate that this was the coldest November since 1995 with an average temperature of -1.87°C; the normal range usually falls between between -1.08°C and 4.20°C. Only six days were above average, with four days below the minimum temperature ever recorded. Fortunately warmer temperatures caused all the snow to melt in the last week of the month, but as a result of these below-seasonal temperatures, I saw no butterflies or dragonflies this month, and my backyard chipmunks disappeared early for their winter hibernation.
Birding in November means watching the feeders, the landfill (the Trail Road Landfill can be thought of as a giant feeder for gulls, crows and blackbirds) and the river. Driving through farmland and open fields can also be productive as the first returning winter residents, such as Rough-legged Hawks, Snow Buntings, Northern Shrikes, and Snowy Owls, look for suitable habitats to spend the winter. Ponds can be productive early in the month, but once the water freezes any lingering waterfowl or shorebirds will disappear.
It was only two years that the Ottawa-Gatineau region suffered its worst flood in decades. Extraordinary amounts of rain fell in April and May (including 159 millimetres in April alone), causing the Ottawa and Gatineau Rivers to burst their banks and bring devastation to houses and infrastructure situated in the flood zone. We coped with it, we learned from it, we moved on. Or so we thought. This spring local rivers crept higher and higher, until April 28 when this year’s flooding was declared Ottawa-Gatineau’s worst on record with the water still rising. On that date the water level in Arnprior was 14 centimetres above the record set in 2017 and the water level in Britannia was 2 centimetres above the record set in 2017.
It’s been a slow start to spring migration. Normally by mid-May returning birds are everywhere, and songbirds are busy feeding and singing in the smallest of parks and unlikeliest of yards. This year, however, with the cold weather and heavy rains it feels like we are still two weeks behind schedule – I saw my first warbler species of the season (a Pine Warbler) at Mud Lake on April 14th, my second (a Yellow-rumped) at Andrew Haydon Park on April 21st, and then my third warbler (a Black-and-White) at the Eagleson Ponds on May 4th. It doesn’t help that Ottawa’s most dynamic and productive migration hotspot, Mud Lake, is closed to the public due to the flooding along the river, but even so I would have thought I’d have seen more warblers by now. It’s been difficult to find new species to add to my year list, even visiting different trails and conservation areas with Mud Lake off limits. Here are a few photos and some of my interesting finds from the past week.
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.
It’s difficult to plan a mammal-watching excursion here in Ottawa. Most of my mammal sightings are random occurrences; they are much more secretive than birds, and do not conveniently give away their location with boisterous song in the summer or quiet chip notes in the non-breeding season. Diurnal mammals such as squirrels and chipmunks are the exception – both are quick to voice their displeasure with or fear of intruders in their territory. However, most other mammals are silent and prefer not to be noticed.
Stony Swamp is home to a large number of mammals, from the tiny Southern Red-backed Vole to the large White-tailed Deer and fierce coyote. By spending a lot of time on the trails – particularly in the evening or first thing in the morning, before it gets fully light or too crowded – you can see many of these mammals over the course of a year, but it’s difficult to tally more than a couple of species in a single outing. I find the Old Quarry Trail is one of the most reliable trails for seeing mammals such as Snowshoe Hare and porcupine, so I decided to spend some time there this morning.
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.
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.