Most North American mammals are elusive and difficult to find or photograph, even when you are in the right habitat at the right time of day. Coyotes want nothing to do with humans and just run off when they see one; deer have become much less common than they used to be (as have groundhogs and muskrats, for some reason); I’m apparently only allowed to see one beaver each year; I’m convinced that moose actually don’t exist in Ontario; and the only raccoons and skunks I’ve seen in the daylight were “sleeping” next to the road with large tire tracks across their bodies (but I don’t like to think about that). Even when I manage to find a mammal worth photographing they don’t stay in sight for long, and don’t allow you to spend much time in their presence as they go about their lives. I have had some luck with various members of the weasel family in the past year or so; they tend to be curious and not too disturbed by my presence, as long as I stand still and keep my distance.
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!
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.
It’s been another slow spring; although the snow was quick to melt this year without any flooding, it took until the last week of April before temperatures reached a daily high of more than 10°C, and not once did Ottawa reach 20°C – in fact our highest temperature last month was 16.8°C (normally the highest temperature falls in between 20.7°C and 28.5°C). This is only the eighth time since records began in 1870 that April temperatures stayed below 17°C. Migrants have been slow to trickle in, however, this may be a reflection of the greatly reduced number of trails and habitats I visit rather than the actual number of birds passing through, as eBird sightings have been steady despite the cooler temperatures and persistent north winds. Despite the weather and the smaller area in which I’ve been birding, I’ve had some good mammal sightings in the past few weeks, and have seen my first butterflies of the season.
It’s difficult to plan a mammal-watching excursion here in Ottawa. Most of my mammal sightings are random occurrences; they are much more secretive than birds, and do not conveniently give away their location with boisterous song in the summer or quiet chip notes in the non-breeding season. Diurnal mammals such as squirrels and chipmunks are the exception – both are quick to voice their displeasure with or fear of intruders in their territory. However, most other mammals are silent and prefer not to be noticed.
Stony Swamp is home to a large number of mammals, from the tiny Southern Red-backed Vole to the large White-tailed Deer and fierce coyote. By spending a lot of time on the trails – particularly in the evening or first thing in the morning, before it gets fully light or too crowded – you can see many of these mammals over the course of a year, but it’s difficult to tally more than a couple of species in a single outing. I find the Old Quarry Trail is one of the most reliable trails for seeing mammals such as Snowshoe Hare and porcupine, so I decided to spend some time there this morning.
Warblers are probably the most eagerly-awaited returning migrants for birders all over northeastern North America. As a group, the combination of song and colour is unmatched by any other type of songbird in our region, and many North American birders consider them the jewels of our region. Warblers are insect eaters, and as such, pass through Ottawa late in the spring migration season, with the hardiest species arriving in mid- to late April. The Pine Warbler is usually the earliest of these, closely followed by the Yellow-rumped and Palm Warblers. About a week later the first Black-and-white Warblers, Nashville Warblers and Black-throated Green Warblers arrive. The Blackpoll Warbler is usually the last warbler to appear, stopping here only temporarily before continuing on to its breeding grounds in the black spruce and tamarack forests further north. This amazing species holds the record for the longest nonstop over-water flight by a songbird, taking up to three days in the fall to reach its wintering grounds in the southern Caribbean and northern South America.
Yesterday was eBird’s Global Big Day 2016, a Cornell Lab project which tries to find out just how many birds can be recorded across the globe in a single day. During this project, eBird asks people to submit all their bird observations on May 14th into eBird, a global database used by scientists to study the distribution of birds all over the world. eBird is one of the largest biodiversity databases in the world, with more than 300 million records, and last year’s Global Big Day tallied a total of 6,158 species. As I already use eBird to track my bird sightings, I was eager to participate. However, I didn’t have the car, and had to make do with going somewhere reachable by bus. Unfortunately, OC Transpo’s weekend bus routes in Kanata South are not designed to get you any place efficiently except Hazeldean Mall, which severely limited my options – even places like Mud Lake and Andrew Haydon Park take two or three different buses to get there, and places like Shirley’s Bay and Jack Pine Trail are out of the question. Worse, the forecast called for rain later in the morning, so I wasn’t sure how long I would be able to stay out in the event I wanted to go to two or more areas. Because of these limitations, I decided to go to Old Quarry Trail right across from Hazeldean Mall, which is only about a 15-20 minute bus ride from my house and has enough trails in its extensive system to keep me occupied for a couple of hours.
The Beaver Trail is one of my favourite trails to visit in mid-spring: spring ephemerals such as violets, Trilliums and Hepatica are in bloom, a good variety of butterflies – including various anglewings, Mustard Whites, elfins and azures – are on the wing, and both breeding birds and migrants alike can be found along the edge habitat surrounding the ponds. Although one of the shorter trails in Stony Swamp, the variety of wildlife that can be found here makes it worth visiting in any season. Spring, however, is my favourite season for visiting. On May 7th I arrived at the parking lot just before 8:00 am, and found only a few chickadees and Song Sparrows. It wasn’t until I reached the first marsh that I heard my first good bird of the day – an American Bittern. This was a year bird for me, and not a bird I hear very often in Stony Swamp, making it a great find.
On Saturday I got up early as I only had a couple of hours until it was supposed to rain. My first stop of the day was Sarsaparilla Trail, where I heard a White-throated Sparrow singing as soon as I got out of the car. This reminded me of the White-throated Sparrow I had heard singing somewhere close to the parking lot all last summer; I wondered if the same territorial male had returned. What made this observation interesting is that I haven’t yet heard or seen any White-throats around, other than the three over-wintering sparrows at Mud Lake. This seems a bit late to me, as I’m sure I’ve seen them by mid-April in previous years.
Birders love it when the Easter long weekend falls in April. The weather is usually nice, and the early migrants have already begun to arrive. If it’s warm enough, the first frogs, butterflies and snakes will have emerged. Easter fell on the first weekend of April this year, and although winter and spring are still battling for supremacy, I was still able to find plenty of birds for my year list.
I started Good Friday with a walk at the Beaver Trail where I unknowingly flushed six ducks hidden in the marsh at the back, at least two of which were Wood Ducks. A few more Red-winged Blackbirds had arrived, and I heard a single Common Grackle call near the Wild Bird Care Centre. Blackbirds flew over several times while I was there, but the day was overcast and I didn’t get a good look at them. The best bird was a pair of Golden-crowned Kinglets in the woods near the meadow – this species was a year bird for me.