After the Equinox

Black-capped Chickadee

Black-capped Chickadee

While it is true that fall migration proceeds at a much more leisurely pace than migration in the spring, each species moves according to its own internal calendar. In late August and early September you might find warblers, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, flycatchers, vireos, orioles, Cedar Waxwings, and Scarlet Tanagers foraging together in a single patch of woods. A month later the same patch of forest might hold sparrows, kinglets, Winter Wrens, Rusty Blackbirds, nuthatches, Hermit Thrushes, and boreal finches, while waterfowl on rivers and ponds increase in numbers and diversity. I usually notice the switch around the fall equinox, when the sparrows start to outnumber the warblers and I realize that it’s been a while since I last saw a flock of Cedar Waxwings. Now is the time to look for American Pipits in open scrubby areas or along rocky shorelines, scoters and grebes along the river, hawks and Turkey Vultures soaring toward southern climes, and any lingering warblers in the hope it is something other than a Yellow-rumped.

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A Backyard Lifer: the Squash Vine Borer Moth

Squash Vine Borer Moth

Squash Vine Borer Moth

I haven’t been spending as much time in the backyard this summer, mostly because of how hot it has been – I find I have less tolerance for the heat and humidity than I once did. Still, I do check the insects buzzing around my flowers in case anything interesting turns up – perhaps a new lady beetle or hover fly, or an interesting bee or wasp. There hasn’t been much.

Today when I went out to refill the feeders and clean my bird bath I saw something very unusual buzzing around my white Swamp Milkweed flowers – a large bug with fuzzy red legs that often hovered over the blossoms to feed. I wasn’t sure what it was at first, until I downloaded my photos and recognized it as a moth when I saw the antennae and the outline of the wings in my photos. Only then did I realize it was one of the clearwing moths. I tried Googling “clearwing moth with fuzzy red legs” but this only brought up hummingbird moths as a result. It wasn’t until I uploaded my photos to iNaturalist that it was identified as a Squash Vine Borer moth (Melittia cucurbitae).

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Wildlife Around the Garden

Eastern Tailed Blue

Back when the lockdown started in March and the provincial parks, national parks, and local conservation areas started closing, I thought I would be spending the summer in my own backyard. It’s a nice enough yard, but it’s quite small and doesn’t boast the number of fauna of the even the small urban parks nearby. If I had known when we bought our little townhouse in 2003 that one day in the not-too-distant future I would consider myself a naturalist, I would have looked for a house with green space behind it or at least a park next door to increase the number of species that visit my yard. Hindsight, as they say, is 20/20.

When the local lockdown restrictions finally lifted in late May, I was able to enjoy my summer visiting new and well-loved places beyond the boundaries of my neighbourhood and seeing the amazing wildlife of the Ottawa region.  As such, I didn’t spend as much time at home as I thought I would.  This is in part due to the fact that I spent the summer working from home – perhaps if I had been going to the office downtown every day I wouldn’t have felt the desperate need for escape on the weekends, looking for a much-needed change of scenery.  I was able to watch the birds and squirrels from my office window, but didn’t spend much time getting up-close-and-personal with the bugs and other critters. Still, I was able to eat lunch outside on occasion, and spent some of the nicer weekend afternoons working on the garden. Even just walking out to the car sometimes I found a few things of interest!

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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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Backyard Encounters

As anyone who has followed this blog for a while knows (or who has picked me up to go birding!) I live in a townhouse in the sterile suburban wastelands of Kanata on the southwestern edge of Ottawa. My backyard is the size of a postage stamp, and my front yard is half the size of that as the driveway takes up the rest. We used to have two mature trees on the front lawn we share with our neighbours, until the one closest to the road came down suddenly in a windstorm. Thankfully no people were injured or property was damaged, but this was the same tree I’d seen a Pine Warbler in during the spring of 2017 and I was looking forward to seeing what else might turn up during migration. The tree closest to the house is right outside my computer room, and in recent years the Eastern Gray Squirrels have built leafy dreys right outside my window. Sometimes the squirrel sits on the branch outside its nest of leaves and twigs and stares at me while I’m working; I usually wave to it, but it just stares back at me. I always wondered if they realized that I’m the one who fills the feeders out back and tosses peanuts to them when they visit.
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The European Wool Carder Bee

A few weeks ago I first noticed a large black and yellow bug spending time at my “Victoria Blue” Salvia flowers. It would fly from the plant at one end of my garden bed to the plant at other end before flying over the fence to the neighbour’s yard. A few minutes later it would fly back over the fence into my yard, visit both plants, and then disappear again. It was so quick I wasn’t able to photograph it, but it had a habit of hovering in place, so I thought it was a large hover fly of some sort.

Then, last weekend, I noticed several of these large bugs, all following the same route over the neighbour’s fence into mine. For some reason I have thistles blooming in my backyard, and they were visiting both the thistles and the Salvia. It was an overcast day, so they weren’t moving as fast as they usually do. I grabbed my camera and went out to photograph them. To my surprise they weren’t hover flies, they were bees – European Wool Carder Bees – a new species for the yard!

European Wool Carder bee (Anthidium manicatum)

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Chipper says Hello!

I have four chipmunks now visiting my yard looking for food dropped from the bird feeder. At first I was only aware of three, one of which has a shorter tail than the others, and only two of which will run up to the back door when I open it and call them over (they know I keep the good stuff inside). Then a few weeks ago I noticed three chipmunks with long tails, although they don’t all come at the same time.

One day I noticed this chipmunk in my back garden, standing on its hind legs while munching on my pansy flowers. The pansies are situated just in front of the bird bath and do much better out back than they do in my front garden – they have been blooming profusely since May. (The ones in my front garden died only a few weeks after planting – remind me to never plant them out front again.) I tried to take some photos of the chipmunk standing up and eating the flowers, but they didn’t turn out so well.

However, I did manage to snap the shutter in time to get this photo:

Eastern Chipmunk

I went out and put some pile of bird seed on the small retaining wall, and the chipmunk disappeared until I was gone. Then it came back out to feed.

Eastern Chipmunk

It has a much shorter tail than my short-tailed Chippy, and it looks much more ragged – as though it was freshly broken off, and none too cleanly. I am not sure whether my short-tailed chipmunk had its tail further shortened, or whether this is one of my regular long-tailed ones. I’ll have to keep an eye out on the weekends and see.

November Rarities

Black-throated Gray Warbler

November is a great month for finding rare birds in Ottawa. The shortening days, dropping temperatures, and unexpected weather systems can all result in birds moving around, and this time of year it’s not uncommon for younger birds to wander or be blown off course. The past few weeks have been exciting, with a Razorbill on the Ottawa River from October 30-31st, a flyby Northern Gannet going up the river on November 12th, and an Anna’s Hummingbird in Carleton Place all being reported. On November 2nd – the day that the temperature jumped from 6°C to 13°C as just such a weather system dropped almost 30mm of rain on the city – an unlikely songbird found itself in Ottawa. A young Black-throated Gray Warbler was discovered at the Britannia Conservation Area, aka Mud Lake, Ottawa’s mega hotspot for rarities, by Bruce Di Labio. This tiny warbler normally lives west of the Rocky Mountains and spends the winters in central Mexico and is not supposed to be anywhere near Ottawa.

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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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Mini-update: Wildlife Close to Home

I’ve seen a few interesting things in my own backyard and in conservation areas close to home these days, but haven’t taken enough photos for a full blog post; here are a few photos from the past couple of weeks.

On July 10th I visited the Eagleson storm water ponds for an hour in the afternoon. Even though this was much later in the day than I usually visit, I still found 21 species including a Green Heron, an Osprey and a Belted Kingfisher. I also counted three Spotted Sandpipers around the pond. It seems odd that I haven’t seen any tiny precocial sandpiper chicks running around here at this point in the breeding season; either they aren’t breeding here, or they are keeping their young well-hidden. This adult kept a wary eye on me as I photographed it from a respectful distance.

Spotted Sandpiper

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