Life Bird #473
December 21st, 2017
The next day I tried again and hit gold. The Black-Throated Gray Warbler
appeared east of the ridge. Many birders that day enjoyed good views and, for
the camera-equipped, photo ops as it actively foraged in a stand of buckthorn.
Black-Throated Gray Warbler breeds in the west from Arizona and New Mexico, up
to the southwestern tip of British Columbia. It prefers pine and mixed
oak-pine forests. Like most warblers, it is a dedicated insectivore (although,
as suggested by its attraction to buckthorns at Mud Lake, it will also take
the occasional berry.) This bird is often considered part of a "superspecies"
with the closely related warblers Black-Throated Green (our local
representative), Townsend's, Hermit, and Golden-Cheeked. It is the least
colorful of the bunch (unsurprising for a southwest bird), but still has a
certain somber handsomeness about it and a little spot of color, especially on
. The one in Ottawa was probably a young (first-year) bird.
Sadly, but not unexpectedly, this lost waif was not able to contend with an
Ottawa winter. It did surprisingly well for awhile, until the big snow
arrived. That morning, Bruce di Labio went to Mud Lake and found it lying
motionless at the base of a tree. He picked it up and cradled it in his hand
to try to warm it, but it was too late. A silver lining on the cloud is that
now the Royal Ontario Museum has a specimen for a very rare bird in our
I find it interesting that the same man who found the warbler was the man who
was there to try to rescue it in its final moments. It was the same with the
Bullock's Oriole in Pakenham: Ray Holland found it, and Ray Holland was there
to rescue it when the winter turned harsh. (And for the oriole the ending was
happy: it was eventually released in British Columbia after convalescing at
the Wild Bird Care Centre.) Even though many, many people went to see both
birds, those men were there when it counted. It speaks to their dedication and
their skill as field-naturalists.
And now for more photographs from Mud Lake.
Wood Duck (female)
Wood Duck (male)
Fox Sparrows only appear in Ottawa in migration. This one was a little late
moving on to its wintering grounds (but much better able to deal with being
late than an insectivorous warbler.) It was in with a group of White-Throated
Sparrows and Dark-Eyed Juncos, all coming out to forage on birdseed that
someone had scattered on the trail. But it was much shyer than they, quickly
darting back undercover whenever a human got close. I've only managed a few
photos of this bashful sparrow (one of my favorites) over the years, and I
still haven't gotten one that I'm truly happy with.
December 20th, 2017
It's time--long past time, really--for a catch-up post, before Michael and I
head to Virginia for Christmas vacation. (I'm going to be rambling a bit for
the next five paragraphs, so click here
if you prefer to
skip straight to the photos.)
Like last year, I've ramped down my nature photography for the cold season.
When I do manage to coax myself out into the Ottawa winter, my focus is on
seeking beauty and enjoying it in the moment (rather than taking myself out of
the moment to capture it), and getting enough exercise to stave off seasonal
affective. However, I made two trips out to Mud Lake in early November in
search of an ultra-rare Black-Throated Gray Warbler, and I brought the camera
both times. I'll share those photos in this post and the next.
And the camera will be going with me to Virginia. I very much look forward to
seeing the incredible array of wintering ducks at Dutch Gap, and maybe
capturing them. Chesterfield had t-shirt weather today. I can only hope it
will offer some of the same after our arrival! And I can only hope the trip
works out and lasts long enough to catch Virginia at its best. I have been
having major sensory processing issues, which more or less torched my last
attempt at travel (Point Pelee in May.) I'm tired of not travelling due to
these issues--as much as I love my home city, I'm tired of only seeing Ottawa
these days. (That's a link to my eBird profile, but note that you have to be
registered on eBird to view it.) i.e. reporting the results of my birding
outings (and sometimes feeder watches) to the huge public database run by
Cornell. This is increasingly popular among birders, and increasingly being
used by scientists for tracking the distribution of species around the globe.
Relatedly, I've been working on a program for recording bird sightings locally
(i.e. on my own computer) and personally. It's sort of eaten my life, though
in a good way. I've enjoyed the coding, and finally, now, am enjoying the
fruits of it. The nucleus of the idea was my dissatisfaction with eBird's
query abilities and its impersonal nature. Although I'm not going to stop
eBirding, I wanted in addition something more like Birder's Diary
, but that runs natively in
Linux (my preferred platform.) I wanted to be able to easily ask, for
instance, "where have I seen Scarlet Tanager in June and July?" And I wanted a
platform for storing personal thoughts about my birding trips, not just dry
I now have all these things in BirdDB! It's a Perl library with a
terminal-based app running on top, and my next step will be a GUI app. I
haven't decided yet whether I will ever release any of it for public use. I
don't know how big of an intersection there is between the already small
groups "serious birders for whom eBird isn't enough", and "linux geeks." I
suspect not a big one. (Besides, there is actually already a birding program
that runs on linux. It's in Java. The truth is I made BirdDB more because I
really wanted an interesting programming project, than because there were no
So a Black-Throated Gray Warbler showed up in Ottawa, our second ever. It is a
bird primarily of the American southwest, though its range does tip up into
southernmost British Columbia. It should have flown to Mexico in fall,
instead, somehow, it ended up here. It was first found on the second of
November at Mud Lake, and ended up lingering there until mid-December, when
winter came in with a vengeance.
The afternoon of the day it was first reported, a rainy afternoon, I went to
Mud Lake and soaked myself and my optics to the bone looking for it. No dice.
I settled for photographing common birds, and promised myself I would be back
the next day to try again.
Note: Husband and I finally got a new 1920x1080 monitor, so that's the res I
use for wallpapers now. Click through to the gallery for wallpaper links for
the first and third of these.
(Continued in next post.)
A Wet Morning On The Tracks
August 12th, 2017
On July 4th I headed to Huntmar Drive intending to hike the west side of South
March Conservation Forest. But I found the Carp River swollen and flooded from
our heavy rains, with tantalizing water bird calls coming from within:
Pied-Billed Grebe, Northern Waterthrush (it's certainly been The Summer of the
Waterthrush for me), Virginia Rail. It was so flooded that the lot where I
used to park for South March was under at least a foot of water. A Great Egret
flew over heading for the river, followed by a Great Blue Heron. I decided to
hike down the train tracks and bird the flood instead of the forest!
Unfortunately the water birds remained largely unseen. But I still found a few
things worth photographing. The unexpected stars of the day were the snails.
They were pretty up close, at least some of them (their shells ranged from
pale yellow to vivid amber), but a little gross in terms of numbers. I've
never seen so many snails. There were about as many snails on the railbed as
there were pieces of gravel.
I chose this beauty for a closeup:
Looking out over Carp River wetlands and beyond. The field was even more
vividly yellow than it appears here (a Canola crop?) I think Huntmar has some
of the most scenic views in Ottawa.
This bamboo-like plant is called Scouring Rush. It forms dense colonies in
moist areas. The abrasive stems were once used in both the old and new world
for scrubbing cookware.
The only actual "water bird" I managed to photograph! Common Yellowthroats are
abundant in brushy margins of wetlands, but typically remain hidden until
pished or otherwise coaxed into view by a birder.
( More (flooded woods, Wild Turkey, American Robin)
Early Morning In Marlborough Forest
August 4th, 2017
On the morning of June 21st I went back to Marlborough Forest to spend more
time with the magnificent Showy Ladyslippers. I found them still glistening
with dew and last night's rain. They had been radiant in the sunset, their
colors brought out to the fullest, but this was a different sort of beauty,
fresh and virginal like the Garden of Eden.
( More Showies
On my past visit, Northern Waterthrush and Winter Wren sang in those swampy
woods, hidden from view. This time I brought along my IPod to see if I could
call them out with some recorded song. They both sang back fiercely (the
loudest I've ever heard a Winter Wren sing, and that's saying something...)
but were not forthcoming with good views. The wren perched in the shadows
while searching for his (imaginary) rival, too poorly lit to photograph, while
the waterthrush just darted over the trail from one hidden perch to another.
It doesn't take much of this trickery, I find, before you start feeling like a
right %&!*. So I discontinued playback, leaving each one confident that he had
won and routed the intruder.
I had much better luck with another male waterthrush on a different territory.
After only a brief few songs, he responded, first singing two hesitant notes
("uh, hello?") and then, after one more round from me, perching in view and
singing away. Waterthrushes may be drab as warblers go, but they have long
been among my favorite birds and I was delighted to finally get a photo of
And now for something completely different.
It was dragging that ball along through the vegetation. I think it's a wolf
spider with her soon-to-be babies. Female wolf spiders are devoted mothers.
After the spiderlings hatch, they will all crowd onto her back and travel with
her wherever she goes.
I had to wade into a puddle to get some of those Showy photos. This fellow
kept me company.
This small snake was basking on the trail. After some research, I learned that
the markings on its head mean it's a Red-Bellied Snake. (I suspected at the
time, but was unwilling to harass it into showing off its belly.) I'd only
seen this species once before, and then it was in the beak of a kestrel. It is
uncommon and usually rather shy. Like all of Ottawa's native snakes, it is
harmless to humans.
A Price Worth Paying (part 3 of 3)
July 27th, 2017
, Part 2
It was near sunset when the best part of my day happened. It started with
Abandon all hope of trail maintenance...
Okay, so turn back. It's time to get going anyway, get back to the car before
dark...but there was just something so alluring about it. The flooded trail
was somehow beautiful, beckoning. So I continued on, hoping that my shoes were
as waterproof as they were advertised to be.
That continuing brought me to a colony of Showy Ladyslippers like nothing I'd
ever seen. Not like the short, lonely, pale one I'd seen earlier, these were
two feet tall, vividly colored and blossomed in clusters. There was nothing
about them that would have been out of place in the most extravagant
cultivated garden (if not for the fact that wild orchids almost never survive
in gardens.) To stumble across such a sight alone, unaided, in the middle of
nowhere...well, it's hard to do justice to it. The best I can put it is,
imagine finding out that unicorns are real.
A relevant quote from Wildflowers of Ontario
I'm not entirely convinced that this is a rare flower. The habitat which it
prefers is simply not accessible to many people. [...] The only sane way to
actually scout out this flower is to wear a bug jacket, a mosquito net over
your head and latex gloves on your hands. I have never been bitten when I
dress this way. I have, however, been accompanied by thousands of thirsty
little mosquitoes as I look for this orchid. And that pretty well explains why
most people have never seen a Showy Lady's Slipper, but it's worth the effort.
A Price Worth Paying (part 2 of 3)
July 21st, 2017
, Part 3
I tallied four separate singing Northern Waterthrushes over the course of my
hike, the most I've ever heard in one day. (Saw none of them. Par for the
course with Northern Waterthrushes.) And indeed, what I could see through the
trees looked like waterthrush paradise, for much the same reason it was
mosquito paradise: abundant, pristine standing water and gently flowing
water. Somewhere in there, a little streaky brown bird was walking along the
water's edge, tail bobbing, searching for aquatic insects and crustaceans or
maybe even wading into the water to snap up minnows. But I could only imagine
it, not see it.
After awhile I came to a spot where swampy woods gave way to a large, open
wetland. It appeared a grassy marsh at first glance, but the presence of what
looked like bog cotton
suggested otherwise. These are the snowy-white tufts that blanket Mer Bleue
bog in late spring and summer, giving the landscape a strange, almost alien
beauty. They did not blanket this place, but that there were any of them was
very suggestive. This was no mere marsh, and there might be things to see that
I don't see often.
It was on the margin of this wetland that I found my first in-bloom Showy
Showy Ladyslippers are somewhat variable wildflowers. They can grow up to two
feet tall and may have striking, deep pink highlights on the white slippers.
This one was on the small and pale side, but beautiful nonetheless. I was
thrilled to find it. I searched for more, but it was the only one I could see.
Its presence suggested that the wetland was in fact a fen (neutral-to-alkaline
and fed by groundwater), which in turn suggested that the "Bog Cotton" was
actually its relative, Slender Cottongrass. (I'm rather out of my depth here.
I'd love to take a field botanist along with me on this hike!)
These little beauties also grew on the margins of the wetland. The very dark,
purplish lateral petals mark them, I think, as a variation known as Small
Yellow Lady's Slipper (Cypripedium parviflorum var. makasin). Compared to the
larger and more common variety, these are about half the size and prefer
wetter habitat, particularly fens and bogs.
A Price Worth Paying (part 1 of 3)
July 18th, 2017
, Part 3
Back to Marlborough Forest on June 14th. This time, instead of taking the
usual loop around Roger's Pond, I decided to explore the vast network of
forest roads. (By "vast", I mean that if you keep going down some of those
roads, eventually you won't be in North Gower any longer. Snowmobilers use
them.) It turned out to be a wetland wildflowers kind of day, with a big
surprise at the end.
My route took me through swampy woods decked out with these magnificent Blue
Flag irises. The first few were wilted and past-prime, but it seemed the
further along I got, the better they got. Blue Flag inhabits a variety of
wetlands, from marshes to wet meadows to streambanks.
My route also took me through mosquito paradise. (Their paradise. Not mine. So
not.) One of the challenges of being a backwoods nature-watcher is that DEET
literally melts plastic. I've already destroyed one set of binoculars with it
and warped the focus ring on my zoom lens. On this day I managed to keep going
without it for some time, through sheer bullheaded stubbornness, but
eventually gave in. I'd rather let DEET slowly devour my equipment than let
the mosquitos and deer flies slowly devour me.
At any rate, it was worth it. Marlborough Forest is a place where you learn
that you can't have the beautiful parts of nature without the biting, stinging
parts of nature. It's all one.
I received approximately 1,000,000 mosquito bites while taking this photo.
Hello. I understand that Cedar Waxwings like to eat flying insects. Could you
please eat some of these flying insects? Kthx.
This was growing in standing water. My first thought was that the
strangely-placed yellow clusters were some sort of foreign growth on the
plant, but a closeup revealed the peduncles anchoring them to the stem. I
couldn't find this one in my Peterson's field guide--which turned out to be
because it wasn't in there, oddly enough. It's called Tufted Loosestrife.
Unlike the familiar, invasive Purple Loosestrife (to which it is not closely
related), it's a native North American wildflower that occurs only in natural
Dragonflies Save The Day
July 11th, 2017
At Roger's Pond on June 12th, a sweltering hot day was drawing out the deer
flies. They swarmed me, buzzing annoyingly (mostly not biting, but the ones
that did left bites that still itched two weeks later.) But then the most
marvelous thing happened...the cavalry arrived.
I walked into a wide-open sunlit spot that teemed with Chalk-Fronted Corporals
(above), American Emeralds and other dragonflies, and in an instant they were
all around me, picking off flies. I can think of few sounds more welcome and
satisfying than that *whizz* of a dragonfly zipping past your head as it
snatches its prey...a very loud noise followed by blessed silence.
One less deer fly!
It ended up being largely a dragonflies kind of day, as all the birds seemed
to be sheltering from the heat.
This one caught my attention when it whizzed by and snatched a tiny insect
that I was trying to photograph. Annoyance gave way to interest when I noticed
how petite it was. I was hoping for an Elfin Skimmer, a dragonfly so small
that it is sometimes mistaken for a bee. But it wasn't quite that
petite. With the help of the Ottawa Odes
group, I learned that it was my first Frosted Whiteface.
Birds and Orchids (part 2)
July 6th, 2017
After our stop to see the Ram's Head Ladyslippers, we went to Murphy's Point
Provincial Park in Perth. This is a beautiful park on the shore of Big Rideau
Lake with a rather Carolinian
it (including, sad to say, a rather Carolinian population of ticks, I pulled
one off me during our walk.) It produced our big surprise of the day. We were
birding the Silver Queen Mine Trail when Jon shouted that there was a White
Pelican in flight and to get our binoculars and cameras ready. I couldn't
believe my ears--I thought he must be mistaken--but then I got a clear view of
it. A White. Pelican. Little over an hour away from where I live.
My photos came out overexposed (the exposure having been set for a cute moth I
was photographing close to ground, more on him later!) and I was bummed. But
then, as if our jaws hadn't dropped enough, the pelican flew back into view
and right over our heads
. This time I was ready.
When we first arrived, the park staff asked us to let them know if we found
any rarities for the park. We found not merely a rarity, but a bird that is a
second-ever for all Lanark County, in recorded history. White Pelicans are a
western species whose breeding range touches only the extreme western tip of
Ontario. This would have been a very lost, late spring migrant! It is an
Ontario-first and a second-ever bird for me.
Other than that, my photo set from this trip might better be termed "insects
and orchids." I saw plenty of good birds, but most of them too far away for my
lens to capture at all well. (I envy those with steady-enough hands to shoot
A kind of adorable furry-headed moth I found on some low vegetation. I think
it's an Agreeable
. (That being, of course, a close relative of the Disagreeable
Tiger Moth and the Cantankerous Tiger Moth. Okay, maybe not.) A lifer insect
for me, to go with my lifer wildflower (Ram's Head Ladyslipper), lifer reptile
(Rat Snake), and pretty-darn-close-to-lifer bird!
A daddy longlegs, more properly called harvestman. Harvestmen are not spiders
and are harmless to humans. I've loved them since I was a child.
Our final stop of the day was Purdon Conservation Area, famous for its
thriving colony of a large, beautiful wild orchid, the Showy Ladyslipper. But
we arrived to find the orchids not yet in bloom. The many tall shoots promised
an incredible show once they are. I plan to go back on my own (and/or with
Michael) in late June, when they should be at peak. The carnivorous Pitcher
Plants were also not much to look at yet. But there were a few wildflowers
I've noticed quite a few tent caterpillars in Ottawa this spring, but that's
nothing compared to Lanark County. Sites we visited had an infestation of epic
proportions, with tents and caterpillars everywhere you looked. In the trees,
in the bushes, on the ground, on your backpack, on your head. The deposit box
for park fees at Murphy's Point had a mass of a few dozen crawling atop it. At
one spot on the trail, we heard a sound like gentle, pattering rain coming
from the woods. I learned what it was the next day on Wikipedia. It was the
sound of umpteen caterpillar fecal pellets falling from the treetops.
Tent caterpillars are shunned by most birds, spiny as they are, but the North
American cuckoos (Black-Billed Cuckoo and Yellow-Billed Cuckoo) eat them with
relish. Quoting from Life Histories of North American Birds
No caterpillars are safe from the Cuckoo. It does not matter how hairy or
spiny they are, or how well they may be protected by webs. Often the stomach
of the Cuckoo will be found lined with a felted mass of caterpillar hairs, and
sometimes its intestines are pierced by the spines of the noxious caterpillars
that it has swallowed. Wherever caterpillar outbreaks occur we hear the calls
of the Cuckoos. There they stay; there they bring their newly fledged young;
and the number of caterpillars they eat is incredible. [...] When, in time,
the inside of the bird's stomach becomes so felted with a mass of hairs and
spines that it obstructs digestion, the bird can shed the entire
stomach-lining, meanwhile growing a new one.
Yes, really. Cuckoos are so specialized to a diet of spiny caterpillars that
they have evolved the ability to shed and regrow their entire stomach lining.
So it was a surprise to not see a single one amidst this massive infestation!
Not even in what looked like ideal habitat. I'd certainly seen more cuckoos
this spring in Ottawa than ever before. Before I'd even noticed the
caterpillars, the tents, before it was on the public's radar that we were
having an infestation, the cuckoos had noticed. I saw a pair of them together
at Nortel wetland in May, a third at Shirley's Bay the day after that. These
are elusive birds; it is abnormal (wonderfully abnormal) to see so much of
them! But our Lanark outing came up empty, the only two of our target species
that we missed entirely. They were undoubtedly there, but remained unseen and
So I had to content myself with photographing the prey, not the predator.
( More (Tent Caterpillars, Northern Mockingbird, Upland Sandpiper)
Birds and Orchids (part 1)
July 1st, 2017
On the 8th of June I joined Jon Ruddy
small group of nature enthusiasts for his "Birds and Orchids" tour in Lanark
County. One of the highlights was a trip to see a small Ram's Head Ladyslipper
colony. You may recall mention of these rare orchids in one of my recent posts
. "Small" is
normally the only kind of Ram's Head colony you find, as they are rare
wherever they occur. (A freak exception is a
quarry in Arnprior boasting a colony of at least 150,000 of them
. No one,
including professional naturalists, understand why they are there.)
I had searched the Burnt Lands alvar (a known spot) for them on several
occasions, but they eluded me. Now I learned why, or part of why, they are so
elusive: Ram's Head Ladyslippers are tiny hidden beauties. Their "slippers"
are about a centimeter and a half wide. At a glance they look like withered,
past-their-prime flowers. Like nothing-much flowers. You can't even see their
colors from a high angle. You have to get down low and close, and that's when
the secret unfolds.
Jon photographing one of the tiny beauties
Yellow Ladyslippers grew in abundance, in clusters on the roadside. Fringed
Polygala was likewise abundant, growing in the shadow of the cedars right
beside the Ram's Heads. (This suggests to me that I should take a closer look
at that spot in the Burnt Lands where I found Polygala. Hope I can re-find
it!) This is a low-growing plant, but the polygala blossoms around the orchids
almost seemed trampled, which suggested to me that this "secret" spot might
not be so tightly guarded of a secret.
That's what my left brain thought, anyway. To my more romantic side, the
carpet of delicate, deep pink blossoms completed the image of a fairy glade
decked out for a party.
Postscript: Hiking in a different area the very next day, what should I find
but two perfect Ram's Head Ladyslippers! The setting, based on what I'd
learned the day before, was perfect--sunlight dappled by overhanging cedars, a
floor of grass and conifer needles, Fringed Polygala and Yellow Ladyslippers
growing nearby--but I'd never heard to look for them there. It was a stunning