In Love With Dutch Gap (part 1)
January 11th, 2018
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
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
Note the vortex around this fellow. I think this is one who was spinning by
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
(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)
In Love With Dutch Gap (part 2)
January 13th, 2018
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.
( More (Mockingbird, Brown Thrasher, Field Sparrow, Bald Eagle)
In Love With Dutch Gap (part 3)
January 23rd, 2018
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
Another things that gives coots away as non-ducks: their weird feet.
There's something unusual about the White-Throated Sparrow. If you'd like to
know the story, read on.
Early thaw, aborted
March 17th, 2018
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
. 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,
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
An Easter Goose
April 3rd, 2018
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
May 3rd, 2018
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
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
Time For Goodbye
June 28th, 2018
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
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.
Parc Omega, Belatedly
November 12th, 2018
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
And I ended up with a few that I'm happy with. I particularly liked these
frolicking Alpine Ipex kids.
young Arctic Fox
Less Travelled By
November 16th, 2018
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
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
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
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
(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.
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
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
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.
December 7th, 2018
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.)
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
Northern Water Snake
My big aspiration for next spring is to finally go exploring Richmond
. 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
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!