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Spring fever

It's been an interesting spring.

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 winnowing snipe. (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 the wiser.

An invasion of Red AdmiralsSpring migrants tough it out


April 23rd, 2012 at 7:40 am
Glad you got to see something interesting as well as hear all this stuff!

April 23rd, 2012 at 8:32 pm
Wow, cool birds! Don't have bittern yet this year, or sora...and those sora are darn tough birds to see. I am still not sure I've seen an entire adult sora, though I have it on my life list thanks to the little black balls of fluff at Shirley's Bay last year.

Did you go out on the dyke? I was there yesterday around 1:00 and was told not to go beyond the fence. Saw some Horned Grebes from the boat launch, though.

April 23rd, 2012 at 11:39 pm
Yes, the same thing happened to me. I called and got nixed on going past the fence, and sure enough when I got there, I could see they'd erected a large "danger" sign saying not to enter. Never had permission denied before. I hope it's only a temporary thing and not a permanent policy change.

April 23rd, 2012 at 8:36 pm
By the way, if you go into that marsh via Corkstown Road by the Equestrian Park in June you will hear (and see) Willow Flycatchers!

April 23rd, 2012 at 11:41 pm
I assume you're referring to the Nortel marsh? Willow Flycatcher would be cool...I don't have it on my Ottawa list yet. (Got the lifer in Okanagan.)

Now if only the weather would shape up so I could get out sometime in the next week without getting rained on...:-P

May 27th, 2012 at 11:02 pm
Well, you certainly didn't overstate the case in saying "you *will* hear Willow Flycatchers"! I read on the OFNC reports that they and Alders were back on territory, so I went to Nortel looking for them. They were singing nonstop. A first for me for my Ottawa list. Soon I'll go to Mer Bleue to look for the Alders who breed around the edges of the bog...