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!
I’ve spent some time birding around home recently, visiting places in Stony Swamp and Shirley’s Bay looking for breeding birds and butterflies. Hairstreaks have been on my mind, and after lunch on July 4th I headed up to Shirley’s Bay where I have seen both Banded (June 2012) and Coral (July 2016) Hairstreaks along Hilda Road in years past. I also thought I might find some baskettails patrolling the open trails, as I’ve seen both Common and Prince Baskettails there as well. Finally, Giant Swallowtails breed on the Prickly Ash plants in the area, and I was hoping to add Ottawa’s largest butterfly to my year list with a visit. Unfortunately it was much quieter than expected, with no baskettails zipping along above my head and no hairstreaks or swallowtails of any kind despite the gorgeous 30°C temperature. The only butterfly I noticed was a very worn skipper in the clutches of Goldenrod Crab Spider hiding in the Purple Cow Vetch.
On Sunday June 28th I started my day at Sarsaparilla Trail. One of the birds I still needed for my year list was Least Bittern, and I’d been lucky to hear it in the marsh here last year. In fact, I got a great view of it as it flew from the southern shore toward me and landed in the reeds close to the boardwalk before it started calling. I didn’t expect to actually see one again – they are quite elusive and prefer to hunt within the reeds rather than stalk fish out in the open the way Green Herons and Black-crowned Night Herons do – but I knew if I arrived early enough I might have a chance to hear its mournful call. I’d checked a few times earlier this season to no avail, and with June almost over there wasn’t much time left in the breeding season to track down those birds best found by their songs, as many birds stop singing by late July.
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!