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Wetland Adventures

My final set of photos.

Blue Flag iris

This spring and summer I went exploring in a new corner of Marlborough Forest. I found a vast wetland, and within it, a large pond that was almost an exact double of Roger's Pond--so much so that it disoriented me at first! (I later learned that their similarity is due to both having been constructed by Ducks Unlimited.) After the initial discovery, I returned many times. So much birding magic happened at that site. Pied-billed Grebes and Ring-necked Ducks breeding on the same pond. Willow Flycatchers and Alder Flycatchers singing side by side. American Bitterns getting in aerial fights. One day a pair of Trumpeter Swans flew by, and I wondered, with some excitement, if they intended to breed nearby. (I never saw them again, though.) On another day, I arrived in the early morning and took a fox by surprise.

Grebes are feisty birds as a rule, and Pied-billed Grebes, despite their diminutive size, are no exception. The breeding pair on this pond were like phantoms, abundantly heard but seldom seen, but the one thing that helped me find them was the Ring-necked Ducks. Whenever the ducks suddenly flushed, I learned to check the spot where they had just taken off from, and like as not I'd see a Pied-billed Grebe with just its neck and head sticking up, like a snake in the water. Grebes launch sneak underwater attacks using their sharp bills as weapons. I've read that some waterfowl will flush as soon as they see a grebe duck under anywhere near them.

Marsh Wrens nested in the cattails. One wren nest was actually visible from the trail, with a wren occasionally visible as it snuck into and out of it. (This is an elusive bird that I seldom manage to actually spot.)

Where's Waldo?

Around this time I was already winding down from nature photography, so I didn't capture most of what I saw. But I was happy to be able to capture this handsome fellow, who was swimming along the edge of the pond one day. As he slid gracefully through the water, I followed on shore and snapped picture after picture.

Northern Water Snake

My big aspiration for next spring is to finally go exploring Richmond Fen. Richmond Fen is a huge wetland, one of the biggest fens in eastern Ontario, famous among Ottawa birders for its breeding Sedge Wrens and, once upon a time, breeding Yellow Rails, the only known spot for that elusive species in the Ottawa area. (No one knows why, but they've disappeared. Now Yellow Rails are unheard of here.) There is no easy way to get into it. You can canoe into it in spring when the Jock River is high, if you're good at canoeing. You can walk into it by trespassing along an active Via Rail line with fast-moving passenger trains, which seems a bad idea for multiple reasons. And there's also a trail between the ends of Kettles Road and Goodstown Road...which is said to be very, very flooded. Not flooded as in rubber boots. Flooded as in hip waders.

Richmond Fen has a mystique for me. The inaccessibility just makes it all the more interesting. I was intrigued earlier this year when I found out that it is essentially the northeastern extension of Marlborough Forest--you can see it on Google Maps in terrain view, that MF + Richmond Fen is really just one big contiguous green space. At the same time I realized that the place where I discovered that Showy Ladyslipper colony--the place that fascinated me with how fenny it felt--was in fact very close to Richmond Fen, arguably the southernmost finger of it.

So this spring, I'm making a concerted effort to go there, to get into the heart of the fen. I don't know how. I'm not an experienced canoer--not really a canoer at all--and any time I bring up the subject with people who are canoers, their interest evaporates as soon as I mention that a river is involved, and that the river does, technically, have rapids. Maybe it's time to buy hip waders!

And that's about it, at least until I decide to take up the camera again. (Although if you have an interest in reading stories-sans-photos, let me know.) I have done a massive rehaul of my gallery in recent months: deleted much cruft, changed to zoomed-in thumbnails, and put all my best work (or at least what I consider my best work) up front. I'm very happy with the results. So if you haven't visited in awhile, you may want to have a look!

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Less Travelled By

I made an exciting discovery this spring. In past years, on a few occasions, I've hiked along a rail line that crosses March Valley Road. (The crossing is an easy walking distance from my house.) I knew this wasn't quite kosher, but since those tracks were barely used and only for slow-moving freight, I figured it was pretty safe. In 2014 I went further than I'd ever gone before. The tracks run through a golf course, then alongside a DND (military) complex, with uncultivated fields that attract grassland birds and woods on the other side.

I was hoping to get past the complex and into more fully wild land. But when I heard traffic in the distance--presumably Carling Avenue--I decided to turn back.

Now the rails have been torn out. The railbed is officially disused. So there seemed no reason not to explore to my heart's content. This spring I decided to keep going after I heard traffic, and indeed I arrived at Carling: specifically, at that annoying spot where Carling narrows to accommodate the rail overpass. It was a lot more fun walking over that than driving through it.

And then I kept going. And pretty soon I was thrilled to realize that I had hiked my way to Watts Creek! I bird the Watts Creek area frequently and had no idea it was practical to get there from home on foot. No longer does being stuck without the car mean that I can't get any good birding in--at least in the warm months. Better still, if it's practical for Mike to drop me off at, say, Carling and Rifle, I can walk home one-way, which leaves lots of leeway for further hiking along the many crisscrossing trails in that area.

It was the bridge rattle that gave it away first. There's a wooden pedestrian/bike bridge over Watts Creek (link is to a past blog post) that makes a huge ruckus every time someone rides a bike over it, a sound that carries well into the distance. When I heard that sound I knew exactly where I was. And sure enough, a little more walking and I came to a panoramic view of the Watts Creek meadowland.

Not very panoramic, sorry--all I had was a zoom lens!

And still I walked on. After having hiked maybe 4km from the crossing at March Valley, I finally met my own footsteps, as it were, coming from the other direction. I reached the junction of this railbed with another (still active) rail line, a junction I'd been to many times before. That's the spot where you cross over to get from Greenbelt Pathway West to the Wesley Clover woods.

I spent much of spring and summer birding that old railbed, cataloguing what I saw and when. House Wrens, Chestnut-sided Warblers, American Redstarts, Brown Thrashers and many more tangle-loving songbirds sang along the margins. A wedge of forest south of the tracks bore a singing Wood Thrush. East of Carling and into the Watts Creek area, the uncommon Mourning Warbler becomes a possibility. (I didn't see any this year, but have in the past.) In summer ripe raspberries appeared in profusion and both I and the birds enjoyed them.

male American Redstart

In the DND-owned fields, Bobolinks and Eastern Meadowlarks sang in spring. The meadowlarks then moved on, apparently only using the fields as a migration stopover (and only singing as a warmup), but Bobolinks stayed to live and nest. Throughout much of May and June, the males sang, chased, and performed their exuberant flight displays. In the evening, herds of deer and flocks of Wild Turkey roamed the fields.

male Bobolink

Wild Turkeys

Through the whole spring, summer, and into autumn, I only ever encountered two other people (well, except for a few distant folk on DND land, who never seemed to pay me any mind.) One was a walker whom I never caught up with, and the other a lone motorcyclist tearing like heck down the old gravel railbed. This was a place appealing to introverts.

One day I found a skunk, out in the open in a grassy field. It was on the other side of the fence and didn't care a whit about me. It was busy digging for prey.

My most exciting find was a Black-billed Cuckoo. This is an uncommon and elusive species, more often heard than seen. It is also a beautiful, graceful bird well worth the effort of trying to see. On one of my early explorations, I heard a cuckoo's monotonous "coo-coo-coo" sounding in the distance, somewhere in the Watts Creek valley. The next time I heard that coo-coo-coo, it was much further west--no more than a kilometer's walk from my house. And it sounded nearby. I played back a recording of the same call, and the bird flew in and landed close! It held a caterpillar in its beak and didn't swallow, a telltale sign that its nest and young were somewhere close by. Having had an excellent look, in fact the best look I'd ever gotten at the species, I walked on and left it in peace.

And my strangest find was an American Woodcock. I never saw it, but on multiple occasions, it was *peent*ing (a mating call) along the railbed at dusk. What made this strange was that the sound emerged from a spot very close to the Ironstone Grill, almost as if the bird were sitting on the parking lot peenting. It was just a few minutes walk in from March Valley. One doesn't expect breeding woodcocks to be so near to human habitation, especially in the suburbs.

I hope this old railbed gets made into a public trail someday, and doesn't get left to overgrow and disappear. It would be a shame for the beautiful scenery, birding opportunities, and raspberries to go to waste.

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Parc Omega, Belatedly

At long last, I'm going to start posting my final batch of photos. Most of what I have to share was taken in May of this year, but this first set goes further back, to July of last year, when Michael and I visited Parc Omega with my mom while she was visiting. I'm not as enthusiastic about photographing confined creatures as truly wild ones (though I do like that they have plenty of room to roam in Parc Omega.) A certain intensity is missing when they no longer have to struggle to survive (I'm thinking back here of the coyote at Stony Swamp who looked like it was thinking, "I wonder if you're edible?"), and that lack comes through in the photos. But I decided to give it my best shot, as it were.

And I ended up with a few that I'm happy with. I particularly liked these frolicking Alpine Ipex kids.

young Arctic Fox

Arctic Wolf

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Time For Goodbye

I think the time has come for me to officially retire from nature blogging.

There are a number of reasons for this, most of which I won't go into. But a big one is that Facebook Has Eaten The Internet. On the trail, I'll always get more pleasure from enjoying a sighting in the moment, with binoculars, rather than striving to capture it well on camera. But historically, what I got back in the form of blog comments made it more than worth it to occasionally dedicate an outing to photography. (I especially always loved hearing, "you helped me see beauty that I never noticed before.") But comments have dwindled to a trickle, for me and other nature bloggers.

At least one person I know has dealt with this by more or less abandoning her blog and putting her pictures on Facebook. That's not for me. The whole approach of social media (breadth over depth) runs completely counter to my personality. And Facebook brutally resamples, i.e. compresses, i.e. ruins, any photos posted there. (I'm surprised how few people seem to notice this.) Anytime I've shared nature photos on Facebook, the difference between what I put in and what its compression algorithm spits out is simply depressing.

So birding, for me, will go back to being a passionate but largely private hobby. The exception being that I now submit nearly all of my observations to eBird, as I've mentioned before.

My blog and gallery will continue to stay up indefinitely. There's some ten years of material here that I'm proud of. I still see people finding me in the site logs (usually through a Google image search), I still occasionally get email from artists hoping to use one of my photos as a model, and, on very rare occasions, I still hear from people who just plain stumbled across my blog and loved what they saw. That last one always makes my day, not least because it tells me that the corporate web has yet to completely defeat the peoples' web.

I do have a few photos left to show from the past month and some, and a few adventures to recount, so I'll do that in the next post. After that, I'm thinking I might do a retrospective "best of", re-posting some of my personal favorite photos and stories from over the years.

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Recent Birdventures

1. Holland's Marsh

On the 25th I heard simultaneously from Jon Ruddy and Ontbirds that there was a rare Snowy Egret in a flooded field off Highway 17. I'd seen Snowy Egrets galore in Cape Hatteras, but never close to home, and a new "Ottawa lifer" is always worth chasing. Besides, I like Snowy Egrets! So I quickly looked up the directions and headed out.

I understood "Highway 17" to be what the 417 becomes when you keep going west, so was confused when the directions said to get off the highway at Kinburn, then turn left onto the 17. It turns out there is a tiny, disconnected, historical bit of Highway 17 near Kinburn. That's where the bird was. I saw it as soon as I drove up, foraging close to the road! I rolled down my passenger window to enjoy the view and the Ottawa-lifer.

Snowy Egrets look like half-sized Great Egrets (the large white herons that are becoming an increasingly common sight around Ottawa.) They breed on the south Atlantic coast, the Gulf coast, and parts of the western states. Once, they were nearly driven to extinction by demand for their beautiful white plumes (used to adorn ladies' hats.) Thankfully, the plume trade was stopped in time and their population rebounded.

A few minutes after I arrived, Bob Cermak came over and knocked on my driver-side window. "It's Sue, right? We just had a Ruff here about eight minutes ago. Seriously!"

Snowy Egret is a rarity. Ruff is a mega-rarity, an unusual species of sandpiper whose expected range is northern Europe and Siberia in summer, southern Europe, Africa and Asia in winter.

I got out and set my scope up, enjoying (and sharing, with one scopeless fellow) beautiful close-ups of the egret. And occasionally looking for the Ruff, though I wasn't at all convinced I'd know it when I found it. (I knew it wasn't going to be the extravagantly-plumaged breeding male. They'd have said so if it was. It was going to be a generic-looking brown sandpiper.) It was a rainy day and pretty soon I and the scope were both drenched. The scope is waterproof, me slightly less so, but the bird was worth it.

Then someone called out that he had the Ruff. Everyone got on it fast but me (embarrassingly), but I finally did. Lifer! (No photos of this one, sorry. It was extremely distant.) And a satisfying lifer. I was able to study it well, picking out the subtle features (the very short bill, the pot belly, the "floppy tertials") that had given away its identity to the sages.

Word got out fast and before long a couple dozen keen birders were with us, almost all of them clustered with scopes watching the distant Ruff while the Snowy Egret, some twenty feet away from us, putting on a beautiful show of prancing and preening, catching fish, shaking its little legs to stir up prey, languished in obscurity. (Not complete obscurity: I and a fellow photographer continued to lavish attention on it.) It was kind of funny. I imagined someone seeing this strange tableau and thinking, "Bird watching: you're doing it wrong."

I later found out that that spot is called "Holland's Marsh" in eBird...and literally nowhere else. Google knows all about a "Holland Marsh", but that's a region near Toronto, not a bit of flooded field near Ottawa. I don't get it, but who am I to question the birders hive mind? "Holland's Marsh" it is. And to Holland's Marsh I will return. (I gather it's considered a hotspot.)

2. Snake River Line

I was introduced to this great birding road thanks to one of Jon Ruddy's tours. It's famous for Sandhill Cranes, but I've since learned that it's good for a lot else, besides. It's a ways northwest from Ottawa, near Cobden, but from where I live it's only an hour drive. My last two visits have turned up seven different species of waterfowl, all hanging out in flooded fields, plus Bald Eagles, Northern Harriers, Rusty Blackbirds, Wilson's Snipe...the list goes on. The titular Snake River runs west of the road, surrounded by a large marshland (which has been proposed as a conservation reserve.) That marsh is probably why the birding is so rich, and why the fields flood.

From left to right: Female Blue-winged Teal, male Blue-winged Teal, male Green-winged Teal

I gather Snake River Line is underbirded. Because eBird keeps raising its eyebrows at me. 7 Greater Yellowlegs, really? 8 Northern Shoveler, really? 70 Northern Pintail, REALLY? Um, yes, really. I mean, it's not like these are tricky birds to identify, and it's not like I started birding yesterday. It's hard to get good photographic proof when most of the multitude are so far away, and I don't have a digiscoping setup (i.e. a means to take photos through my spotting scope.)

I'll be back. Next time I'm going to bring a playback device, so I can try to coax the Soras and American Bittern (taunting me from within the marsh) into showing themselves.

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An Easter Goose

The annual spring flood of Cobb's Lake Creek in Bourget is on, and as all passionate birders must, I made the pilgrimage--on Easter Sunday, as it turns out. When I saw all the white stuff up ahead and realized it wasn't snow, I knew it was going to be good.

Ten thousand Snow Geese at a conservative estimate. But as I didn't get any good photos of the masses, I'm borrowing a shot I took two years ago (same spot, same time.)

The sight of them flying in skeins overhead, gleaming pearly white against blue sky, was just amazing. And those did lend themselves to good photos. The wind was fierce, it was only a couple degrees above zero, and the jacket I was wearing wasn't really designed for such conditions, but I must have been in love because I stayed out there for over an hour anyway.

Eventually I finished with my "wow"s and settled down with the scope for a long scan. There were a bunch of them massed in a field across the road from the flood, not too far away, so I focused on those. Snow Goose has a dwarf-lookalike called the Ross's Goose, a cute Mallard-sized goose with a stubby little bill. It's rare, but when you've got ten thousand Snow Geese in one place, there's a good chance of at least one in there, somewhere...if you can find it. It's always been a nemesis bird for me. And I've never understood how people manage to scan a tight-packed flock of ten spabillion white geese and pick out the one odd white goose.

I grumbled to myself about how impossible it was. Grumbled and mumbled right up until the moment when I saw a tantalizingly petite white goose, with a tantalizingly stubby bill, amidst the masses. I struggled to keep a lock on it. It helped that it was in the vanguard of its little cluster as they ambled left, and that a pair of Canada Geese (a small minority, for a change) were nearby as a landmark. I took some hurried photos--so hurried that I forgot to check my exposure and they came out overexposed and awful. But they were enough. Jon Ruddy and other experts confirmed that I had my lifer Ross's Goose!

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Early thaw, aborted

For most of the winter, except for our brief jaunt to the southern states, I've been hibernating indoors. I just don't tolerate Canadian winter as well as I did when I was younger. A few weeks ago I thought the long cold wait was over. And I wasn't the only one! On the 27th of February I tallied a Red-winged Blackbird outside my husband's work, my earliest ever. On the 4th of this month, we both drove out to the Carp River floodplain and enjoyed the spectacle of a thousand plus Canada Geese, along with a handful of Cackling Geese (Canada Goose's diminutive lookalike) and two Greater White-Fronted Geese. That last is an uncommon species in Ottawa, and I got one of my best looks at it ever.

And then temperatures plummeted. And a whole bunch of snow fell. People have reported seeing masses of geese fly south. I don't blame them.

But today my body said, "minus five or not, I want a walk." I'm glad I listened. I spent a couple hours at South March Conservation Forest enjoying the sun and the birds. Purple Finches sang along the trail, and Brown Creepers and Downy Woodpeckers spiralled up tree trunks. As for the Red-winged Blackbirds, they seem to have decided, "darnit, we're here now and we're NOT turning around and going back." They were staked out over the frozen marsh, conk-a-reeing away.

Tonight I'm putting both feeders up. I think my molting goldfinches will appreciate the extra food after it hits -19C tonight.

Mourning Doves at feeder, November 21st

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In Love With Dutch Gap (part 3)

On the 27th Michael and I made one final outing to Dutch Gap, featuring three exciting photographic firsts: three birds that I had either never photographed before, or never photographed well. None of them were ducks, oddly enough!

The first was this beautiful little falcon, an American Kestrel:

While I've seen kestrels often enough, usually in rural areas, they always seem to fly away before I can take a picture. I photographed this one from the car and managed to get a few good shots in before he spooked.

For the second photographic first, I thank the very cold weather that day (even colder than the last), which was slowing down the hyperactive kinglets. This is the first photo I've ever gotten of a Golden-Crowned Kinglet that I'm happy with. Though it may not look it in the close-up, this bird is even tinier than the Ruby-Crowned Kinglet pictured in the previous post.

The third first involved the undisputed high point of our outing, a magnificent Barred Owl. The photos don't do it justice, but they are my first-ever showable photos of the species. (I only wish I'd had my camera with me when I saw one of these beauties a few winters back in the Gatineau, almost close enough to touch!)

Even though it is a common species, of the nine owls on my lifelist, Barred is my favorite. I love its dark, brooding eyes and its strange call.

American Coot

American Coot

Another things that gives coots away as non-ducks: their weird feet.

White-Throated Sparrow

There's something unusual about the White-Throated Sparrow. If you'd like to know the story, read on.

( Herein )

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In Love With Dutch Gap (part 2)

On my second visit to Dutch Gap (the day after Christmas), it was the Gadwall who came in close.

(female in front, two males behind)

"Understated elegance" is how AllAboutBirds describes them. I agree with that. Gadwall drakes aren't flashy, but I find them handsome. I particularly like those softly peach-tinted back feathers. When they take flight, they reveal chestnut wing patches, and both sexes show striking white wing patches that help identify them at a distance.

(female in front, male behind)

A tiny Ruby-Crowned Kinglet distracted me away from the ducks as it foraged in the marshside vegetation. It was a cold morning (for Virginia), and cold mornings are always the best time for viewing kinglets! (When it's warm enough to get them up to speed, they move at approximately the speed of sound. At least it feels that way when you're trying to photograph one.) Both species of kinglets (Ruby-Crowned and Golden-Crowned) winter in Virginia and are a common sight, even in suburban front yards, though likely unnoticed by non-birders. They are some of the smallest birds in North America after hummingbirds.

Note in each of these photos the teeny glimpse of the hidden ruby crown, identifying this as a male.

Ruby-Crowned Kinglet

Ruby-Crowned Kinglet

Ruby-Crowned Kinglet

( More (Mockingbird, Brown Thrasher, Field Sparrow, Bald Eagle) )

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In Love With Dutch Gap (part 1)

Michael and I spent a week in Virginia this Christmas, sharing the holidays with my parents. And I managed three outings to Dutch Gap, each of them wonderful in its own way.

Dutch Gap is a conservation area on the James River and one of my favorite places in the world. A rather superlative statement, I know, especially for someone who has birded Costa Rica, but Dutch Gap is special to me. In summer, it's about the beautiful Prothonotary Warblers, brilliant golden birds who nest in tree holes in wooded swamps. At Dutch Gap they nest in bird boxes built especially for them, erected six feet or so above the water. You seem to hear their song around every corner. And they are easy to see, at least until you take your camera out.

But this time of year it's about the ducks. A diverse and abundant assortment of them winter in the marshes of Dutch Gap, viewable right from the roadside. They can sometimes become quite tame. My high counts this trip included, among others, 40 American Wigeons, 100 Gadwall, 10 Northern Pintails, 40 Northern Shovelers, and a whopping 160 Wood Ducks. (Those counts are all loose but conservative, based on what I could see with binoculars and spotting scope from the various overlooks. There were doubtless more!)

I guess ducks are some of my favorite birds. They have such character about them. The gentle Gadwalls, the stern yet comical Ring-Necked Ducks, the ungainly Shovelers. And for the first time I was able to capture them well. I fell in love anew with each species as I was processing their photos.

My first outing, on the 23rd with Michael, had me in a sorry state. I was worn out from travel and having difficulty adjusting to being away from home. But the marshes lifted my spirits.

A Northern Shoveler dabbles for food with his oversized bill, while another tips up. There were dozens of them swimming close in that day.

Northern Shovelers have comb-like structures called lamellae on the edges of their oversized bills. As they dip their bills in the water, the lamellae strain out tiny crustaceans and other food items.

I noticed a few of them doing something I'd never seen them do before. Two ducks would slowly spin together while dabbling, creating a gentle vortex with them at its center. It was reminiscent of what phalaropes do, and likely for the same purpose (to draw food items up to the surface), but the shovelers preferred to do it in pairs. Visually they reminded me of a yin yang.

Note the vortex around this fellow. I think this is one who was spinning by himself.

The other stars of the day were the Ring-Necked Ducks. These diving ducks like shallower water than their relatives, and often hang out with dabblers in marshes and ponds, while the more dedicated divers keep to rivers, lakes and ocean bays. I had struggled to do the shovelers justice in the overcast lighting that day, but for the ring-neckeds it was no problem at all. They're naturally monochrome.

(If you're wondering why these ducks are called "Ring-Necked" and not "Ring-Billed", you're not the first. They do have a very subtle chestnut ring around their necks, visible at close range--as in, to someone who is holding a specimen in their hands. It is seldom seen by the rest of us.)

( More (American Coot, squabbling gulls) )

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