After about a week of temperatures in the double digits, on November 20th the temperature plummeted. The past week has been cold, with most days not even reaching the freezing mark. Worse, a heavy snowfall on November 20th and 21st dumped more than 10 cm on Ottawa; so even though a few trees and shrubs were still sporting green leaves, it looks like winter has begun a full month early, given that the solstice falls on December 21st this year. Even going by meteorological seasons, which uses December 1st as the start of winter, and March 1st as the beginning of spring, winter is still more than a week early. Maybe we’ll get lucky and find ourselves back in the plus-double digits on February 20th, a full month before the vernal equinox.
On Monday, November 14th, a female Summer Tanager was discovered in a small field east of the large pond at Bruce Pit. This was the same field where I’d seen an American Copper butterfly several years ago and had so much fun photographing bees and beetles last August. When I woke up on Saturday I really wasn’t planning on chasing this rarity; I wanted to get to the river early and scan for loons, scoters, Long-tailed Ducks, Dunlin and Purple Sandpipers. However, a dense ice-fog put an end to any hopes of birding that morning, and I had to content myself with a single juvenile Herring Gull among the Ring-billed Gulls in the Walmart parking lot after doing some shopping.
The sky remained gray all morning, and at lunch time I checked my email and learned that the Summer Tanager had been seen in the same group of birches in the same location earlier that morning. After I ate I headed out and was happy to see that the clouds were starting to break up. The temperature was 8°C, relatively balmy after a couple of cold mornings last week, and I even saw a few flies buzzing around. I was hoping to see one last Autumn Meadowhawk for the year, but I struck out in that regard.
I’ve never been to Nova Scotia in the fall before, but as my fiancé Doran was planning on driving down to attend the Hal-Con Sci Fi convention in Halifax from November 4-6 I decided to join him. We left on Wednesday, November 2nd and spent the night in Edmunston as usual; I didn’t see anything really interesting until the next day while we were somewhere between Moncton and the Nova Scotia border. We were driving past a watery, marshy area next to the road when I spotted a couple of shorebirds, including what looked like a yellowlegs in flight, and a red fox slinking along the ground! Between the Nova Scotia border and Truro we saw a dark hawk with a white tail and white wing-tips hovering above the grassy shoulder of the highway. My best guess is dark morph Rough-legged Hawk, though it’s difficult to really process any field marks when driving at 115km/h. Doran noticed the Ring-necked Pheasant on the side of the road; that was the only other good bird we saw on the drive to the city.
My goal was to do some local birding while Doran attended Hal-Con – he has his own booth promoting his company, Whitefire Comics, and normally attends ComicCon in Ottawa every year but wanted to do something different this year. On Friday morning after helping set up his booth I went for a walk around the downtown area. First I checked out the waterfront area, which has its own eBird hotspot, though only 47 species have been recorded there. I thought I might see some loons, mergansers, or Common Eiders and was disappointed – the only birds I saw on the water were gulls. However, I did get Ring-billed Gull for my Nova Scotia list, so at least the visit was productive. The only other birds present were Herring Gull, Rock Pigeon, and European Starlings.
Although migration continues to progress, I haven’t seen as many late-season migrants as I had hoped. Still, there have been a few highlights during the last week of the month, including the arrival of some of our winter birds.
I headed out to Shirley’s Bay on Sunday, October 23rd, but the wind was so cold and blustery that I didn’t spend much time there. I saw a Merlin perching in a tree along Rifle Road and found my first Snow Buntings of the fall picking their way along the shore. There were only two of them, and they flushed when a couple of photographers got too close – I don’t think they even realized they were there. They may have been trying to get close to a Common Loon swimming fairly close to shore, unremarkable in its gray winter plumage.
On Sunday morning I went out hoping to see some woodland birds – various thrushes, kinglets, sparrows, Blue-headed Vireos and Winter Wrens are all moving through now, and I was looking forward to seeing some of these birds. However, rain was in the forecast, and as I wasn’t sure how much time I had before it was supposed to start, I started my outing with a brief walk at Sarsaparilla Trail. I found lots of activity on the pond – several mallards, American Black Ducks and Hooded Mergansers were scattered among the hundreds of Canada Geese present, while a single Great Blue Heron was fishing patiently on the opposite shore. I was surprised there weren’t any other waterfowl species on the water or tucked among the reeds, and although I spent some time scanning the pond in case any Green-winged Teal or Wood Ducks were hiding amongst all the other birds, my search turned up nothing. Similarly, I found few birds of note in the woods: a few juncos and a single Golden-crowned Kinglet were the only migrants that I found, though the usual chickadees, nuthatches, robins, and a single Brown Creeper were present.
Waterfowl are starting to move through our area in good numbers now, so on Saturday afternoon I headed out for a walk around the storm water ponds to see if anything new was around. I chose a late afternoon visit to check on the geese there – they are usually heading out to the corn fields by the time I get there in the morning, so I was hoping to catch them returning for the night – bringing with them, I hoped, some other interesting species. I’ve had both Snow Goose and Cackling Goose there in the past, and I didn’t think it was out of the question for a Greater White-fronted Goose to stop in. It was a warm but windy afternoon, so I was also hoping to see a few late-season butterflies.
It was sunny and cold when I left this morning – only 5°C – with a wind blowing straight out of the north. This was quite a change from my walk at the ponds along Eagleson yesterday morning when it was 16°C and raining lightly. Despite the rain I found some good birds there, including a Belted Kingfisher, two Great Egrets, a Golden-crowned Kinglet and a Ruby-crowned Kinglet along with the usual pond denizens. Even more surprising was the monarch I saw flitting about 12 feet off the ground in the southwest part of the park. I wasn’t sure if it was migrating or trying to find a spot to take shelter; it flew over the trees and looked like it intended to keep going.
The cool weather and gray skies arrived this past week, and with them came the fall birding doldrums. This usually hits me when I realize that we are now halfway through the fall migration season, and that more species have already departed than are still left to come. It’s going to be at least seven months before I hear another Ovenbird or see a flock of Barn Swallows swooping over farm fields; the Wood Thrush, the Eastern Kingbird, and the Yellow Warbler are all somewhere far south of here. Both the birds and the seasons are moving on, and this was made evident when we had to turn the heat on as the nights started dropping down into the single digit temperatures.
I headed out to the Eagleson Ponds yesterday morning, but didn’t spend much time there as there wasn’t much to photograph. After about an hour I ended up with 27 species, and for the first time in months I did not see or hear the Northern Flicker. Sparrows and finches were abundant – it was a mild morning, and several Song Sparrows were still singing. A couple of White-throated Sparrows were attempting to sing, too. A couple of those popped into view when I started pishing, as did an adult and juvenile White-crowned Sparrow.
I was intrigued by the small blue damselflies I saw lurking in the vegetation at the storm water ponds earlier on Sunday, so I returned later that afternoon with my net in order to catch them and identify them. The blue-type bluets are among the most difficult damselflies to identify, requiring a hand lens to see the male’s terminal appendages in order to distinguish between several similar-looking species. Fortunately there are fewer species flying this time of the year than in June and July, narrowing down the tricky possibilities to only a handful: Northern Bluet flies until mid-September, while both Familiar Bluet and Tule Bluet fly into October. Other blue-type bluets are already gone for the year, including Hagen’s Bluet (which flies until mid-August) and Marsh Bluet (which flies until early September).
My goal on Sunday was to visit the Eagleson Ponds briefly before heading out to the woods, but once again I had such a fantastic time there that I couldn’t bring myself to leave. I spent almost 3.5 hours there, completely circled the ponds on the south side of Emerald Meadows Drive only once (but backtracked multiple times), and found 32 bird species together. I also saw two odes – a Common Green Darner and a couple of bluets – and four or five butterfly species. It still amazes me how terrific these little man-made ponds have been these past two and a half months; and I don’t even need to drive there!