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2021 Year in Review: Mammals

Canadian Beaver

Canadian Beaver

It’s been a great year for mammals. Actually, no, check that: it’s been an AMAZING year for mammals, considering I’ve been able to get great photographs of so many species – including those that are not only hard to find, but rarely stay out in the open long enough to snap a picture. It’s been a while since I’ve done a “Year in Review” post, but since I ended up with so many great mammal photos this year I thought I would dedicate one to this subject.

Ottawa is home to a great many mammal species, and we are fortunate that this city has a large variety of green spaces in which they live. Still, they can be difficult to find, as many are nocturnal or crepuscular (active around dusk and dawn), and those that are active during the day may vanish as trails get busy with people. The best times for seeing mammals, I find, are very early in the morning or late in the afternoon in less busy areas. In any case, being in the right place at the right time is often a matter of luck, and I seem to have had more than my share of that this year!

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An Early Spring

Eastern Chipmunk

Eastern Chipmunk

It’s been a while since we’ve had an early spring in Ottawa. In recent years it seems that the snow hasn’t melted until late April, it hasn’t really warmed up until May, and while the first couple of waves of migrants arrived on time, migration slowed down for a few weeks sometime in April when the north wind started blowing out of the Arctic again. Insect-eating birds were delayed, the butterflies and dragonflies emerged late, and then the Victoria Day long weekend hit and suddenly summer has arrived with temperatures in the mid to high twenties.

This year, however, it warmed up early and stayed warm. Our last subzero day was March 16th, and we regularly started reaching double-digit temperatures on the first day of spring, with nine days at 10°C or higher during the rest of the month. Our total snowfall in March was only 6.8 cm, below the normal range of 11 to 84 cm, and it was the windiest March since 1974. It was the 10th warmest March on record; our highest temperature reached 19.8°C, above the normal range of 8.3 to 19.2°C. I kept waiting with dread for one last cold spell or dump of snow, but so far April has been even nicer, with the first two days reaching only 3°C and the rest (to date) ranging from 10 to 24°C. As the snow disappeared quite quickly last month, plants are emerging from the ground early, buds on trees are starting to leaf out early, and butterflies are emerging early. It’s been great for my mental health to see so many signs of new life and renewal.

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Late Summer in Stony Swamp

Snowshoe Hare (juvenile)

A few years ago I wrote a post about the winter wildlife of Stony Swamp. However, it’s a great place to see wildlife in late summer as well. Many birds are done raising their young and are leaving their nesting areas in a phenomenon known as post-breeding dispersal. By late August, the first songbirds have started migrating through our area as well. Many mammals, too, are moving around, fattening up for the winter ahead and looking for safe places to spend the winter. While there are fewer insect species around, many late-season insects are still breeding and laying eggs to ensure their species’ survival for another generation. Stony Swamp is a great place to see all of these, as the variety of habitats within its boundaries provide food and shelter for a variety of different creatures. And the one thing I like about the trails here is that I never know what’s going to turn up on an early morning or late afternoon walk!

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The Return of the American Bittern

American Bittern

Last year an American Bittern showed up at the Eagleson storm water ponds on August 21, 2019. This is the last place I expected to see this species, since the ponds are mostly open water and this is a species that prefers dense cattail marches. It was hunting for fish along the west side of the shore of the central pond, tucked up against a patch of smartweed but completely visible to any who cared to look. It was a one-day wonder, and as no one reported seeing it after that date I figured that would be the last time I would see one at the ponds. Then, on August 12th, my friend Sophie – who first messaged me about the bittern last year – messaged me again after dinner to say that another bittern was at the pond – in the same area as the one last year! Is it a coincidence? Although I have not proof, I do think it is the same one, as many birds show a strong degree of fidelity to their summer breeding sites and a lesser degree of fidelity to their wintering areas. Perhaps they also keep track of particular stopover sites where the food is abundant to help ensure their survival.

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Dragonflies at Mud Lake

White Admiral

By the end of June it seemed that summer had finally arrived and the weather had returned to normal: the temperature had reached a consistent near 30°C, the state of emergency caused by the unprecedented spring flood had ended on June 12th, water levels were returning to normal, and the sun had finally come out! I was hoping that this meant that the dragonflies were also emerging on schedule again, and decided to head to Mud Lake on the last Saturday of June. Mud Lake is a fantastic place to see dragonflies in mid-summer, as all the dragonfly families except for Cordulegastridae – the spiketails – can be found there. Among the damselfly families both the spreadwings and pond damsels are well-represented; the broad-winged damselflies, mainly Ebony Jewelwings, are seen there from time to time. I had high hopes for my visit.
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Shorebirds of the Eagleson Ponds

Wilson’s Snipe

I had a few days off in the middle of September and spent them birding. The weather was fantastic from Thursday through Saturday, and I started my days at the Eagleson storm water ponds which usually has a great diversity of species during migration. The habitat has been excellent for shorebirds, as the water levels were low enough for Lesser Yellowlegs to walk around the middle of the central pond. However, I was really hoping to find some different warbler and songbird species to add to my list, and checked each grove of trees carefully. I wasn’t happy when I found only one warbler species (a Common Yellowthroat) in the 5 hours I spent there total, but the diversity of shorebirds was amazingly excellent. Several were foraging quite close to shore, too, making them easy to identify! I found nine species altogether, which is terrific for an urban pond system so close to human habitation.

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The Annual January Thaw

Great Horned Owl

For the past three days I’ve been listening to the sound of the steady drip of water from the snow melting on my roof. Almost every year we get a warm spell where the temperature climbs a few degrees above zero for a couple of days. While it is usually called the “January thaw”, sometimes it occurs in February, usually right in the middle of Winterlude. It is a welcome break from the bitterly cold days that remain well within the negative double digits. Not only does this weather make birding more pleasant – despite the heavy gray skies that usually accompany these warm spells – but birds and animals become more active, moving around instead of hunkering down against the cold.

I was hoping that this would happen on Saturday, and started my morning at the Trail Road landfill where I hoped to find at least a couple of different species of gull. Once again I found only Herring Gulls, and the only other birds present were two Red-tailed Hawks, crows and starlings. Even these seemed down in numbers.
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Spring’s Progress

Song Sparrow

Song Sparrow

The weather for the past few weeks has remained mostly below seasonable. It has been slow to reach the freezing mark during the day, but I think we’ve finally reached the point where the daily high is now above 0°C. The Ottawa River is still frozen except for the rapids at Mud Lake and Bate Island, and a couple of centimeters of frozen snow still blanket the woods. At least the Rideau River has finally begun to open up on both sides of the 417 bridge. The City usually starts blasting the river open in March to prevent flooding, and although I read that the City would be blasting the ice throughout the month of March, as of the last time I visited Hurdman Park (March 31st) there was no evidence of any workers on the river in that area.

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Easter Rarities

Yellow-headed Blackbird

Yellow-headed Blackbird

The Easter long weekend is a great time for birding, particularly when it falls toward the end of April. The weather is nicer, migration is well under way, and there is a greater variety of wildlife to be found. I spent Good Friday visiting the various trails of Stony Swamp: first an early start at the Beaver Trail, followed by a lengthy walk at Jack Pine Trail, and finishing up with a quick scan of the pond at Sarsaparilla Trail.

When I arrived at the Beaver Trail, I spent a good ten minutes just watching a flock of sparrows feeding on the ground just beyond the parking lot. Most of them were American Tree Sparrows heading back north to their breeding grounds at the edge of the Canadian Tundra; however, a couple of juncos and Song Sparrows were feeding with them, and I thought I might see my first Fox Sparrow. I didn’t have any luck with the Fox Sparrow, either there or with the large flock of juncos near the Wild Bird Care Centre.

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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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