More Northern Wanderers

Pine Grosbeak

After my sojourn at Sarsaparilla Trail I went home for a quick lunch. Then, taking my friend Suzanne’s advice, I went back out in the early afternoon to check some local crabapple trees for feeding flocks of northern birds. There are several in my neighbourhood, and although I’d seen several Pine Grosbeaks and Bohemian Waxwings over the past week and a half while waiting to catch the bus, the trees remained full of fruit and empty of birds. I decided to head over to the spot where Suzanne had seen her flock of Pine Grosbeaks earlier in the week and, quite by luck, discovered a huge tree full of berries on the way. Even better, the trees were full of birds!

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Sarsaparilla Trail in the Late Fall

Red-breated Nuthatch

I never tire of visiting Sarsaparilla Trail. It is a short trail, which means I can spend as little as half an hour there and still have a good look around; however, I usually spend at least an hour there, more if there are a lot of birds on the pond or chickadees to feed.

It is a peaceful place. Because it’s such a small trail, I usually don’t encounter many people there, especially very early in the morning at this time of year when the temperature is hovers around 0°C and there is still frost on the grass. The chickadees eagerly seek me out, often followed by the nuthatches, Blue Jays and squirrels, and I can talk to them without worrying about what anybody thinks.

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Northern Birds

Last weekend was a great one for seeing a variety of northern birds moving through – though, for various reasons, not for photography. Earlier in the week, a Northern Hawk Owl had been discovered near the Ottawa airport. This northern species only appears in southern Ontario during the winter when food becomes scarce in its normal range; I last saw this species in January 2011 when one set up a winter territory near Brennan’s Hill, Quebec. I drove out to Bowesville Road just south of the airport early Saturday morning but had no luck finding the Hawk Owl (apparently it waited until after I left to put in an appearance). I did, however, see a group of Common Redpolls, a Snowy Owl resting in the middle of a green field, and a Rough-legged Hawk in the same area. The Rough-legged Hawk appeared to be keeping an eye on a group of Wild Turkeys feeding right below the tree in which it was sitting; both the hawk and the Snowy Owl were season firsts for me.

Snowy Owl
Ottawa, January 2007

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Small Geese

Cackling Goose

The weather last weekend was not conducive to spending a lot of time by the river. It was cold, for one thing; the temperature rose only a few degrees above zero each day. It was overcast, for another, which meant no there was no warming sunshine to ease the chill. Worst of all, it was windy – and out along the Ottawa River, the wind coming off the water just blasts the cold right into you. Still, I stopped by Andrew Haydon Park on Saturday in the hope of spotting some interesting birds around the man-made ponds. I still needed Cackling Goose for my year list, and Andrew Haydon is one of the best spots to find this species in the fall. I was also hoping there might be some unusual gulls and waterbirds around too, despite the heavy winds; it was worth a look!

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After the Fire

Black-backed Woodpecker

Back in July, the day before my fiancé and I left for our trip to Alberta, a large fire broke out in Stony Swamp only a few kilometres from our house. The fire department estimates that between 40 and 50 hectares burned altogether; although it has been referred to as a “brush fire” rather than a forest fire, many trees were affected, some of which fell down completely, others of which were merely charred. Large, uncontrolled fires are rare in our area, but the drought had created exceptionally dry conditions this past summer so it isn’t surprising that this fire grew to such a large size or took a couple of days to bring completely under control.

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Waterfowl Watching

Hooded Merganser
November 2006

If you want to go waterfowl watching in Ottawa, October is the month to do it. Our region is a major staging area for waterfowl each fall, and hundreds of thousands of birds consisting of more than 30 species can be found on local ponds, sewage lagoons, wetlands and major rivers.

The best place in Ottawa to see the greatest variety is the stretch of the Ottawa River known as Lac Deschênes. Located between Deschênes Rapids to the east and Innis Point (Ontario) and Baie Alexandria (Québec) to the west, Lac Deschênes is located wholly within the Ottawa River and reaches about three kilometres at its widest point. Because it is one of the larger bodies of water in the region, and because significant numbers of water birds stop here to rest and refuel during spring and fall migration, Lac Deschênes is recognized as a globally significant Important Bird Area (IBA). It isn’t surprising that the two life birds I got this month are both water birds, and that the most unexpected of the two was found on Lac Deschênes.

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A New Yard Bird and an Owl

Golden-crowned Kinglet
October 2, 2006

I had a pretty good birding day on Wednesday. No, I did not take a day off work, and no, I didn’t see anything new or rare. It began when I stepped outside onto my back deck early Wednesday morning to throw some peanuts out for the Blue Jays. I was just about to toss them into the yard when I heard a rapid, high-pitched “see see see” call coming from my neighbour’s yard. The call was familiar and distinctive, but I had never heard it in my neighbourhood before; for a moment I wasn’t sure what I was hearing, other than a few chickadees in my neighbour’s pine tree. I stood still for a moment, listening, and when I heard it again, I knew I had a new bird for my yard list: Golden-crowned Kinglet!

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A Bird in the Hand

Birders like to keep lists. Serious birders keep a life list – a list of all the birds they have seen since they started birding – and enjoy adding to that list as they travel to new places and see new species. Many keep yard lists or year lists, tallying each new bird they see in their yard or over the course of a calendar year. The truly dedicated birders keep “big day” lists or “big sit” lists – a list of all the birds seen or heard in a 24-hour period, whether by visiting as many habitats and local birding hotspots as possible, or by sitting in one location for the entire period. Big days and big sits may be personal or competitive, where individuals or teams compete to find the highest number of birds in the same 24-hour period. Big day competitions are often used as fundraisers for bird conservation or to raise awareness of local birding opportunities.

I’ve even heard of birders who keep a list of all the birds they have seen or heard on TV. I personally don’t get this, but every now and then the birds I hear or see onscreen catch my attention, such as during last Sunday’s season premier of “The Walking Dead” when I tallied five species: there was the Great Horned Owl, of course, but I also heard the calls of an American Crow, Blue Jay, Red-winged Blackbird and a Chuck-Will’s-Widow during the show. Not that I’m keeping track or anything!

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Sparrows in the West End

White-crowned Sparrow

I took the day after Thanksgiving off work, and the bright sunshine and clear blue skies enticed me to go out and look for a couple of birds I hadn’t seen yet this fall. The first was the Orange-crowned Warbler, a drab species which rarely shows its orange crown and migrates later than most warblers. They are less common in the east than in the west, and I usually manage to pick up one each year in the fall – never in the spring. This year I haven’t seen any. The second was the Fox Sparrow, also a bird that is typically found in October. I normally find them in the woods of Stony Swamp, foraging on the ground with flocks of White-throated Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos. It was a beautiful morning for a walk in the woods, and I headed over to Sarsaparilla Trail first.

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Turkey Vulture Migration

Turkey Vulture in flight

The sight of a Turkey Vulture gliding effortlessly above the ground always fills me with a sense of awe. These birds are very large with a wingspan of almost two metres; in eastern North America, only eagles are larger. The masters of soaring flight, Turkey Vultures are easily recognized by the shallow “V-shaped” wings and their teetering flight with very few wingbeats. Although they appear black from a distance, up close they are dark brown with a featherless red head and pale bill. The trailing edge and wingtips are silvery white below, giving them a two-toned appearance. Doran and I drove to Cambridge last weekend to spend Thanksgiving with my family, and we saw several vultures soaring above the fields along Highway 401 on our way down. On our return trip yesterday, we saw many more, and I estimate we saw at least 100 of them riding the thermals. These birds weren’t just hunting for food – they were migrating.

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