The winter doldrums hit early, and hit hard. After a late start to winter, there were two feet of snow on the ground by Christmas, and by New Year’s Day we were in the grip of a week-long deep freeze with temperatures rising only as high as -17°C during the day – most of the time we were right around -20°C. From then on we suffered the usual bitter cold/messy thaw/winter storm cycle that characterizes our Ottawa winter throughout January and February. While a good number of Snowy Owls were present in the region, there were no winter finches, no Bohemian Waxwings, no northern woodpeckers, and no unusual owls or raptors (i.e. Boreal Owl, Gyrfalcon) to add excitement to the birding scene. Less and less I found a reason to go out, even on those weekends when it wasn’t snowing/raining or bitterly cold, and I lost the motivation to keep a winter list or work on my year list – anything that’s in the first two months of 2018 will still be around when the weather warms up in April.
Yesterday was a great day for seeing new things. I started the morning at Old Quarry Trail with no particular goals in mind; it’s been a few years now since I’ve been there at the height of breeding season, so I just thought I’d take a look around and see what I could find. This was a good decision as I ended up adding two new birds to the eBird hotspot list (one of which was also new for my Stony Swamp patch list!), and found a new lady beetle species.
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.
On June 13th I went for a walk at Jack Pine Trail. This large Stony Swamp Trail can be good for odonates, and although I thought it was probably early for the Arrowhead Spiketail and various emerald species I’d seen on June 29th last year, I was hoping to find some Fragile Forktails, Emerald Spreadwings, or Northern Spreadwings as well as the usual breeding birds and butterflies. I didn’t see any really exciting birds; my best birds were a Double-crested Cormorant flying over, a Red-breasted Nuthatch feeding its newly-fledged young, two House Wrens singing in the alvar, a Brown Thrasher, two Alder Flycatchers, and six species of warbler (Ovenbird, Black-and-white Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, Yellow Warbler, Black-throated Green Warbler and Pine Warbler).
On May 10th I spent some time in the west end and had a fantastic day, adding 18 birds to my year list. I started the morning with a quick visit to the Eagleson storm water ponds, hoping to find some warblers lurking in the trees; instead I heard a couple of White-crowned and White-throated Sparrows, a single Swamp Sparrow, a single Chipping Sparrow, and the usual blackbirds and Song Sparrows. The best birds of my visit were a Killdeer investigating the large expanse of dirt where a new block of houses will soon be built, the Barn Swallows flitting beneath the bridge, and two Common Terns catching fish. The terns are a new species for this location.
From there I decided to spend some time along March Valley Road, where there are usually some ponds that attract dabbling ducks and watery fields that attract shorebirds. Last year I was lucky enough to spot a couple of Northern Shovelers, Dunlin, Semipalmated Sandpipers, Least Sandpipers, Semipalmated Plovers, and single White-rumped Sandpiper in May. I was hoping for a similar experience this year and was not disappointed.
Jack Pine Trail in Stony Swamp is one of my favourite trails. I got a lifer there the first time I ever visited the trail back in June 2006 – a Virginia Rail – and many more since. Because of its mix of habitats, it is a good spot to view wildlife all year round; the trails cross several marshes, coniferous and deciduous forest, and even an open alvar-like area that hosts Field Sparrows and White-throated Sparrows in the summer. In the winter, the OFNC maintains a large bird feeder along the northern part of the trail, though this doesn’t prevent chickadees from approaching people for handouts. This is one of the best places in Ottawa to feed chickadees and nuthatches right from your hand.
It’s that time of year again! The official winter listing period began on December 1st, and once again I am keeping a list of all of the birds I find in the Ottawa area during the months of December, January and February. While a winter list of 90 species or more in the Ottawa study area (a 50 kilometre radius centered on the Peace Tower downtown) is considered excellent, during the past five years I have only averaged 60 species per winter. My best season was last winter, when I tallied 70 species altogether!
One place I wanted to take my mother and stepfather but didn’t have time was Mer Bleue, the second largest domed bog in southern Ontario and one of the most beautiful and unique parts of the city’s Greenbelt. Featuring a northern ecosystem more typical of the Arctic than the Ottawa Valley, the Mer Bleue bog is the only wetland in Canada’s Capital Region internationally recognized under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands.
Sphagnum moss, also known as peat moss, forms the heart of the 3,500-hectare bog. This plant thrives in the cool, acidic, oxygen- and nutrient-poor conditions that characterize northern bogs. When it decomposes, it forms layer upon layer of dead organic matter (called peat), the bog substrate. Because the sphagnum moss tends to grow fastest in the center of the bog, the peat accumulates below and the water table rises. The high water table allows wetland plants to keep growing and for peat to accumulate, increasing the size of the dome over thousands of years. The Mer Bleue bog is about six metres thick in the center of the dome and has taken thousands of years to develop.
On Sunday, June 5th I led my third OFNC birding walk at Jack Pine Trail. This time I had only five people attend, perhaps because of the uncertain weather forecast for the day: cloudy with a chance of showers. It wasn’t raining when I got up, so the walk went ahead as planned. After finding no one waiting at the usual meeting spot at Lincoln Fields, I drove directly to Jack Pine Trail where, in the parking lot, the beautiful song of a Wood Thrush could be heard.
The smaller group made it easier to talk to each individual and ensure they all saw everything. Because the leaves had all filled out, I planned to concentrate on identifying birds by their songs and teaching the group the most common marsh and woodland birdsongs.