In winter, when most of the bright yellow birds have flown to the tropics, and
goldfinches have molted most of their yellow for dingy greyish-green, what a
sight to see a meadowlark, as golden-breasted as ever! These birds, generally
thought of as a rural species, occur year-round at Pea Island Wildlife Refuge.
In summer I hear them singing from the boardwalk.
Grackle, a supersize relative of the Common Grackle, is one of the
characteristic birds of the south Atlantic coast. In winter they get very
flocky, gathering on lawns, rooftops, sand dunes, and last but not least,
feeders. A large group was patronizing the feeders at the Visitor Center,
though they flushed into the vegetation as soon as I drew near.
The dominant wintering duck at Pea Island appears to be the Northern
Pintail---they raft by the hundreds on open water. They're skittish when
approached, though, so I wasn't able to get any good pictures of them. These
were somewhat more cooperative.
For the third year in a row, I've found a pair of Red-Shouldered
Hawks wintering in a particular spot in my parents' neighborhood. The
locals are even familiar with them now, asking me if I'm looking for "the
hawks" when I walk by with my binoculars. This time I was able to get good
photos of one of them.
They seem to be filling the niche typically filled by accipiters
(Sharp-Shinned and Cooper's Hawks) in Ottawa: namely, preying on suburban
backyard birds. The one pictured was taking the rather cheeky approach of
perching directly above a feeder.
For this post I owe thanks to my aunt Alice. Her house is surrounded by woods,
and she maintains a diversity of feeders in her front and back yards:
sunflower, nyjer, mixed seed, multiple suet blocks. I got some of my best
photos of the trip just staking out on her back porch.
My first-ever decent shot of a male Eastern
Bluebird. The species is often quite shy.
We were sitting in the living room talking when a Red-Bellied
Woodpecker came to the suet block hanging just outside the window. I crept
up to the glass to photograph him. Feeders are one of the best places to see
this species up close. In their natural habitat they usually stay high up in
The Dutch Gap marshes were, as usual, teeming with wintering waterfowl. None
came close enough for artistic photos, but I wanted to take one just to show
the variety. Here it is. A
sharp-eyed birder should be able to pick out six different species in this
picture. (Three more--Northern Pintail, American Wigeon and Wood Duck--were
too far away to get in the frame.)
This juvenile Bald Eagle circled directly over me several times before flying
away. It almost seemed like he was trying to decide if I was small enough to
carry off and eat! Bald Eagles look more or less like this for four years
before they acquire their famous all-white head and tail.
I haven't been racking up nearly the kind of yearlists as many of my birding
acquaintances. I've been hearing more than I see of late. I have, however, had
some neat experiences, including exploring some niches of Ottawa greenspace
that I never knew about before.
One is the woods behind Nortel, to which I was introduced thanks to Gillian. I went there this
afternoon with Michael and had an almost-lifer. We heard a loud, penetrating
"kerlee!" coming from within a cattail marsh. I was able to confirm my
suspicion when I got home: it was a sora, a type of
rail, and one of the very few non-rare breeding birds in Ottawa that I have
yet to lifelist. We watched and waited for some time, but without some means
to draw him out of the marsh (like an IPod with a sora call on it), it was a
lost cause. The cattails were just too thick.
More marshy excitement occurred later, alone. I was exploring Shirley's Bay,
hiking a trail I'd never been on before, when I heard the telltale sound of
(Yes, snipe are real, not just fictitious targets of "snipe hunts"!) These
wetland birds perform an aerial courtship display, circling in the air as
their wings make a distinctive sound. I followed the sound, and came to a
marsh where I was also treated to the scratchy "kiddick kiddick" of a Virginia
Rail and the unmistakable deep gurgling "poomp-a-loomp" of an American
Bittern. It seemed about the most birdy marsh I'd ever found in Ottawa, in
terms of diversity. Of course, it helped that I was there in the evening on an
overcast day, as marsh birds tend to be nocturnal, but I'd been to the
boardwalks at Stony Swamp many times at dusk and dawn, and never heard so much
activity at once. I could only enjoy it by sound, though. The rail and bittern
were well-hidden in last year's cattails, and the snipe, I guess, blended into
the overcast sky.
Between them and the sora, it really tempted me to turn to the "dark side" and
start taking an IPod (or similar) out when I bird. I have ethical qualms about
coaxing birds with recorded calls, but with some, they're very hard to see any
other way. Still, I enjoyed myself just listening, and my eyes got all the
feast they needed when the overcast sky made way for a gorgeous sunset.
As I was walking down Rifle Road to my car, sunset trailing off into night, I
had my final surprise. A buzzy "peent" sounded repeatedly from the woods
beside the road. Then I started hearing more "peent"s, further down the road,
and on the other side. I wondered "nighthawk?" at first, but that didn't seem
right. If nighthawks were displaying I should be hearing the whooshing of
wings, like I did in Okanagan, and the peents should be coming from the sky,
not down in the woods. Besides: it's a little early. The birds that return to
Ottawa in April are those that, while they may be partly or even primarily
insectivores, can get by on other food if needed. Yellow-Rumped Warblers and
Tree Swallows can eat berries. Pine Warblers can eat seeds from pine cones.
Nighthawks eat flying insects. Period.
So I decided the peenters must be crickets or somesuch, and walked on.
Then something twigged. Specifically this:
That was it. I was hearing woodcocks!
Soon after I realized that, the air began to fill with twittering sounds, all
up and down Rifle Road. Like snipe, woodcocks do flight displays in spring,
but instead of winnowing, their wings chirp like a calling songbird. (Go to
near the end of the video to hear it.)
In retrospect it was not a big surprise:
This common breeder is found in appropriate habitat from March to November.
Easiest to find in April, when it does its fabulous mating flight from its
chosen woodland opening or edge area. Check Shirley's Bay or March Valley Road
(Fourth Line) - Klondike at dusk in spring, listening for the twittering
flight "song" (really tail-feathers) or the repeated "peent" given when it
returns to the chosen spot on the ground.
But a treat for me, because while I'd read about woodcock spring fever many
times, this was the first time I'd experienced it for myself.
It was really dark by then, but one of the peents sounded no more than ten
feet from the road, so I focused my binoculars and scanned the ground. I found
him--a shadowy figure, visible only when he moved. I almost couldn't credit
what I thought I was seeing. But then the shadow took off suddenly, and I
heard the chirping of its wings as it circled overhead. That's when I knew for
certain. My first woodcock sighting of spring, and only my second ever. They
are furtive, well-camouflaged birds, nigh impossible to find outside of spring
display, unless you happen to flush one by walking right next to it (which is
how I got my first.)
It struck me how, If I had just been driving my car down Rifle Road with the
windows up, all this would have been going on around me and I'd have been none
Our recent cold snap has been hard on the birds and butterflies that poured
into Ottawa early, drawn by the deceptive summery weather. The many Yellow-Rumped
Warblers at Mud Lake yesterday morning were mostly foraging on ground,
scraping the bottom of the barrel in their search for insects and other
invertebrates. Still, the males had enough energy to sing almost constantly.
Kinglets too filled the air with their songs, and flashed their (normally
concealed) ruby crowns at each other. Neither species breeds at Mud Lake, but
birds often sing and display in spring migration--warming up, as it were.
Cold weather is ideal for photographing Ruby-Crowned Kinglets. They don't move
around as fast!
Some very tame Wood Ducks
have been hanging out at the north end of Mud Lake, near Cassels Road. Someone
must be feeding them--the species is normally quite skittish. Whatever the
reason, it's a photographer's dream come true!