Recent Archive Gallery About Home For A Day
An odd duck, and the upside of forest fires

I had read on Ontbirds that a super-rare female Tufted Duck was being seen at Shirley's Bay. This is a Eurasian species that has only strayed into our area once before in recorded history. So I headed down to the boat launch parking lot, joined a large group of birders with scopes, and had a look. Success!

Of my three lifers yesterday, this is one I kind of have to call a technicality. The female Tufted Duck doesn't share the male's obvious strange hairstyle. The only thing to distinguish her from her new-world counterpart (Ring-Necked Duck) is a teeny little nub of feathers on the back of the head. I saw the duck, and I saw the teeny nub. But no way by myself would I even have noticed, much less thought it significant, much, much less confidently identified her on the basis of it!

Bob Cermak, one of the local experts, was there. As I was about to leave, I overheard him tell someone that a Black-Backed Woodpecker had been reported at Lime Kiln Trail, and my ears perked way up. Black-Backed is one of the two boreal woodpeckers that are seldom seen in Ottawa, and had never been seen by me. So I immediately hopped in my car and zipped over there, where I intersected with Bob's group and ended up falling in with them.

There was a forest fire at Lime Kiln Trail earlier this year. A forest fire is generally seen as an unfortunate thing. But for certain birds, and for the birding world, it's actually a big positive. Birds, like other creatures, evolved in the presence of natural fires. They have ways of dealing with it. Some have even evolved to specialize in burned-over areas, for various reasons--maybe because they like the resulting open habitat, or because they prefer to dig their nest holes in burnt trees, or because their preferred insect prey specialize in burns. Naturalists call them "fire followers."

A lot of those birds are in trouble now. Unfortunately evolution is blind, and didn't know that humans were going to come along and devastate the "fire follower" niche. Fire prevention policies have even driven a few species to near-extinction. (The tide is now being turned in some cases via the use of prescribed burns.) Burn sites are at a premium, so when a new one appears, it's a given that interesting birds will show up there. An old burn site in Constance Bay, for instance, is Ottawa's only known location for breeding Red-Headed Woodpeckers: a single pair of them. Lime Kiln Trail, or at least part of it, is now such a site, and assuming the city leaves it more or less alone, it could remain so for years.

The Black-Backed Woodpecker report was recent and news to all of us, but as we explored the site, it became clear that the species had been there for months, and probably more than one of them. The telltale sign of boreal woodpeckers is bark stripped off of dead trees. They eat a special kind of beetle larvae that tunnel under the bark. There were trees in those woods that had been more than half de-barked. Trees with heaps of bark piled under them.

I wasn't the only one who was kicking myself that I hadn't thought of it sooner. I knew about fire followers. And I had been planning on going there in spring, searching for Red-Headed Woodpeckers, Olive-Sided Flycatchers and others. It just didn't occur to me to do it in fall.

So we fanned out over the burn site, pored over every promising tree, listened carefully for the sound of slow tapping, and came up empty. Tons of Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers, the most I've ever seen in one place (clearly burn sites are of interest even to some birds that don't specialize in them per se), but no Black-Backed.

Damned if I was giving up. I went home, had lunch, showered, and went back out solo. This time I found it! Specifically her--a female. Which proves that there is at least a pair, since the original report was of a male. Have they bred? Will they breed? I can't wait to find out.

I have no pictures as yet, since she flew off before I got the chance to close in on her. But I'll be back to try again.

ETA: Success, photos here!

This autumn has been like magic. So many surprises. This afternoon, twenty-four Sandhill Cranes were circling on thermals practically right over my house. I wonder what else it has in store?

A day of jawdropsAutumn At Andrew Haydon Park


October 23rd, 2012 at 7:07 pm
Congrats on the two lifers! Like you, I was planning on visiting the burn site next spring as I didn't think the beetles would have become abundant enough for the birds to find them yet. I'll have to check it out, hopefully this weekend.

I went twice to see the Tufted Duck, but had no luck. The scaup were so far offshore and the light and winds were so bad that it was difficult to locate one slightly odd duck among the crowd. Maybe next weekend.

October 27th, 2012 at 9:01 am
Hi Suzanne! Just wanted to let you know I found one yesterday - a female! The only other birds of interest that I saw there were a Fox Sparrow right near the parking lot, a Pine Siskin flying over, and some White-winged Crossbills which landed in the tops of a tall spruce(?) tree briefly enough for me to see them. Lots of Hairies and Downies as you said!

October 27th, 2012 at 4:08 pm
Glad to hear it! I'll have to keep an eye out for the crossbills...I've only ever seen one once.

Perhaps we'll even get some Three-Toeds there this winter, who knows?

November 6th, 2012 at 10:22 am
what an interesting story, and congrats on your lifers those days.