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May . . . what a month!

June 21, 2016

Migration is a beautiful and mysterious thing.  It is predictable yet full of surprises.   I like that!  While veteran birders recognize general patterns in terms of what species can be expected to show up when, the exact nature is determined by local and regional weather conditions, and in eastern Canada that means that no two migrations are the same.  Southerly winds bring migratory birds north into eastern Canada in the spring.   Clouds, rain and cold fronts (with northerly winds) halt or slow the migration until conditions become more favourable.   Paying attention to the weather in the spring is the most helpful thing a birder can do to take full advantage of the migration phenomenon.

In Gatineau – Ottawa, May started as it typically does with quavering whistles of White-throated Sparrows, flashes of yellow from Yellow-rumped and Palm Warblers, and bursts of energy from the tiny Ruby-crowned Kinglets. For some reason this spring the Yellow-rumped warblers uncharacteristically vanished almost as soon as they arrived.   White-crowned sparrows joined their white-throated cousins around the second week of May, heralding the  big warbler push.  I was lucky to be at home on a day when 12 species of warblers paraded by the apartment including Black-throated Green, Magnolia, Chestnut-sided, Blackburnian, Cape May, and many others along with Baltimore Orioles, a few Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, and a smattering of other species  including Cris’s favourite . . . Blue Jays.   Towards the month end, I was fortunate to hear Brant fly over, as they likely often do, unnoticed, but this year I was ready for them and their different honks to Canada Geese.  I heard a Swainson’s Thrush migrating at 4 am, and was fortunate to be hanging out the window when a Barn and a Rough-winged Swallow zinged past.   In fact, since April, I have been lucky to observe five new species for our place – American Tree Sparrow, Indigo Bunting, Rough-winged Swallow, Lincoln’s Sparrow, and Brant.

The yellow nape of the Cape May Warbler is a good field mark.   After being away for a few months we are thrilled to  have Blue Jays back in the neighbourhood!  photos by Ted Cheskey


Not being away for long periods has helped me build my list of 75 species for the month of May.  This was a surprise to me, but in fact it reflected the regular time that I have invested in birding – usually before work, getting up before the sun rose and spending an hour to 90 minutes hanging out the window or on the balcony.  The later was harder early in the spring because it was often cold or windy, but always worth it.  There were so many times that I stepped out only to meet a new species in the tree.  One day it was a Sapsucker.  Another a black-throated Blue Warbler.  Another day a Merlin.  All of these were spotted the instant I stepped out onto the balcony and gone seconds later.  The remarkable thing is that I have only observed these birds on that one occasion – probably at least 10 species were added in that way.

Another highlight for me was seeing our feeders on the National as part of a piece on the launch of the State of North American Birds Report: 2016.  Good to know where you can see birds when you have to!

I haven’t mentioned my friend Al for a while.   Al got me started on this project a few years back by challenging me to a friendly birding competition from our respective places.  I always felt that our situations were not comparable; he has a beautiful and diverse multi hectare property  with fields, forest and wetlands where he works as his “yard” whereas i am in my apartment or on the balcony in an urban part of a city.   That said, I acknowledge that for certain things I have an advantage – being here every evening and night I can hear birds, even if it is in a city.  Also, it is not “any” city – it is Gatineau, and I am beside Gatineau park less than a kilometre from the mighty Ottawa River. But dear Al cracked 100 species by the end of May and is currently around 105.

So when the clock passed midnight and May became June, I added things up and discovered with some delight that I had observed 86 species so far this year from apartment 6, 29 Boucherville, surpassing my hoped-for target of 80!  I still have hopes of adding another 14, though I know it will be tough.  The spring migration is effectively over, and I need to put the time in to spot a wandering non-breeding that I have somehow missed, like an Eastern Wood Peewee, or that Pine Warbler that lives about 500 metres from our place, just out of earshot, or the Night Herons that nest on the river about 1500 metres from my place!  Eventually they will show us.  I just need to be there also!

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