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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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Looking for Wood-Warblers

Canada Warbler

We are now nearly two weeks into September and I have not found as many warblers or songbird migrants as I had hoped. In a previous blog entry I wrote about how edge habitats can be productive for migrants, especially those with a good diversity of plants which provide cover and food sources for not just the birds of the two dominant habitats, but others as well. I’ve been spending most of my weekend mornings at the Eagleson Ponds, followed by trips to other places with good edge habitat – last weekend it was the Old Quarry Trail, Beaver Trail, and Sarsaparilla Trail; this weekend it was the Richmond Sewage Lagoons, Rideau Trail, and Sarsaparilla Trail. Each time I’ve been disappointed, wondering where all the migrants were. I suppose I could just go to Mud Lake and rack up a list of 30+ species there, but it is often packed with birders and photographers this time of year, and I prefer quieter places.

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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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Yellow-bellied Flycatcher

Yellow-bellied Flycatcher

Most new or casual birders find the identification of flycatchers frustrating. Some are distinct enough in appearance to be easily identified, such as the black and white Eastern Kingbird and the Great Crested Flycatcher with its yellow belly and rich, rusty upperparts. The Eastern Phoebe pumps its tail, which is a great clue to its identity. I have the most difficulty with Eastern Wood-pewees (mostly when found in open areas – they breed in the woods) and Empidonax flycatchers, as they are confusingly similar in appearance. Empidonax flycatchers, or Empids for short, are brownish-gray above and white below, with white eye rings of varying sizes and two whitish wing bars. The only surefire way for me to identify them is to wait until they open their beak and sing – each flycatcher has a unique song, which makes things even easier as you don’t even need to get a great look at the bird.

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Year Bugs and Year Birds in June

Eight-spotted Forester Moth

June is one of my favourite months. Normally the weather is hot and sunny by the time the solstice rolls around, the birds are all in full song, and butterflies and dragonflies are emerging in woodlands, fields and wetlands. However, the weather this month has not been great. The rain from May continued on and off this month, keeping water levels of the rivers and ponds higher than normal, and likely delaying the emergence of many insects. The weekends have been nice, at least; I’ve been able to get out early in the day in order to look for new birds for my year list and any butterflies and dragonflies that may have emerged. While my enthusiasm has certainly declined since our amazing trip to Costa Rica, I’ve found myself regaining interest in visiting trails and conservation areas close to home, hoping to find some species I haven’t seen since the previous summer.

The day after my trip to the Bill Mason Center, I made plans with Chris Lewis and Chris Traynor to head out to the Cedar Grove Nature Trail in Marlborough Forest to look for odes around Roger’s Pond. I would be co-leading an OFNC outing there the following weekend with Jakob Mueller, a reptiles and amphibians guy, and wanted to get an idea of the dragonflies and damselflies that were flying. As we weren’t meeting at the parking lot there until 8:30, I headed out to Sarsaparilla Trail first, then the Rideau Trail for a quick look around.

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Searching for Migrants in Stony Swamp

Rain and thunderstorms were in the forecast Saturday morning, so I went birding close to home as I didn’t have much time before the rain was supposed to start. Although it was still sunny when I left, I decided to visit the Rideau Trail and Sarsaparilla Trail as I knew I didn’t have enough time to visit a larger trail like Jack Pine, though I’ve been meaning to return there for a while now. I haven’t been to these two trails since Labour Day, and was hoping to find some different migrants there, but once again the trails were disappointingly quiet.

When I reached the parking lot at Sarsaparilla Trail the first thing I noticed were a couple of crows flying up into the trees. The second thing I noticed was the Snowshoe Hare in the grass at the edge of the parking lot. It’s been a while since I’ve seen one here; it was good to see that at least one of the two was still around.

Snowshoe Hare

Snowshoe Hare

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Interspecies Disputes

Spotted Jewelweed (aka Touch-me-not)

Spotted Jewelweed (aka Touch-me-not)

Labour Day weekend is here, and in my view, it is the best birding long weekend of the year – although Victoria Day comes close, by then songbird migration is mostly over, and high water levels in the spring mean that there are fewer shorebird species around places like Shirley’s Bay and Andrew Haydon Park. At the beginning of September, however, lots of different kinds of birds are passing through, and the weather is still very warm, so there are more insects around, too.

Yesterday morning I decided to head out early as I was hoping to beat the crowds of dog-walkers, wind-surfers, joggers, etc. to the mudflats at Ottawa Beach. It was only 9°C when I left, with a few fog patches in the low-lying areas, but when I arrived at Ottawa Beach at 6:40am I found only two other people – a photographer and another birder just walking in. A small group of shorebirds was foraging along the shore, and when I set up my scope I was happy to see a Sanderling (an Ottawa year bird), a Pectoral Sandpiper, and half a dozen Semipalmated Plovers.
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