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Pop the cork!

November 14, 2016

There are a couple hundred bird species that nest to the north of Gatineau, where we live.  They migrate over my head twice a year, north each spring and south each fall. Some of them stop to rest and feed in the neighbourhood, but many just fly over, never stopping.  Occasionally those that fly over betray their presence by a call note – perhaps to keep in touch with their conspecific buddies.

I count all birds that I can identify by sight or sound from our flat.   My rules are simple:  if I can identify it, I count it.   I have to be either inside our 2nd floor flat or on the balcony.  I don’t count birds that I observe from any other place.  Many species are on my list because I heard them from bed – sometimes over-night, sometimes before getting out of bed in the morning.  The bedroom window is usually wide open, allowing sounds from outside to filter in.  During the work week, traffic sounds from busy Alexandre Tache Street drown-out most nature sounds.   On the weekend it is different – often quiet enough to hear and recognize distant call notes from birds overhead.

On my last post, a way back in July, I was musing about my goal to observe another 9 new species from the large pool of possibilities that slipped past in the spring to get to that magical 100 for the year. Perhaps it is silly to be obsessed over a number – but I can think of worse obsessions.   This post describes what happened since July.   I have been travelling for work in August and again more recently, and for vacations with Cris.   I’ve been away many weekends.  When I have been here on Saturday or Sunday, I make an effort to spend as much time as I can spare birding from inside or on the balcony.

I added three species in August – Greater Yellowlegs – the only shorebird other than Killdeer – heard calling while flying over.  There is no shorebird habitat around our place so the only way to observe one is by hearing its flight calls.   A singing Eastern Wood Pewee wandered into earshot in my neighbourhood for a few days, likely practicing for next spring, and a Rose-breasted Grosbeak turned up in the Japanese Elm by the balcony, lifting me to 94 species by the end of August. September held more promise for species missed in the spring.  A Common Merganser flew into view above the Ottawa River.   Never easy to observe, this species is a regular on the Ottawa but as I don’t have a direct view of the River seeing one requires some luck!

There were two warbler species observed in mid-month that slipped passed unnoticed in the spring.   Blackpoll Warbler and Northern Parula both made pit stops in the neighbour’s magnificent spruce trees that, no doubt, resemble the tree that they are most familiar with.   Watching them glean insects from the foliage is a reminder how much birds do to keep our forests healthy.  Even the migrants coming through are busy forestry workers.  Another attractive bird, a Philadelphia Vireo, foraged for several minutes in a Manitoba Maple across the street on the edge of Gatineau park.   By the end of September I was up to 98 species.  Surely with three months to go, 2 more species would be easy?


Northern Parula by Ted Cheskey

Observing species 99 was all about being in the right place at the right time. On October 12, while scanning the Park across the street, an Accipiter floated up above the tree line, moving north into the park.  It flew directly past.  It was a new species for the year, a Sharp-shinned Hawk – specialist in eating small birds.   I could hear the Chickadees react to the hawk on the other side of the house.  Chickadees are sentries for other species, warning of danger.  We love our Chickadees and imagine that this sentiment is shared by many other species.

Once at 99 species, I assemble a hypothetical list of the remaining possibilities and how to maximize my opportunities to observe a new species.  There were several species associated with the Ottawa River – gulls and waterfowl mainly, that should be possible.   There were still some raptors that migrate high above, following Gatineau Park south to the Ottawa River when the weather conditions are right.  Then there are the songbirds that migrate late into the fall: finches, Snow Buntings, Sparrows.   I just needed to put in time for all of these possibilities and I know that there would be a reward.

Yesterday morning, November 12, just after waking I heard it.  A clear call note, followed by a distinctive trill.  I blurted out the name “Snow Bunting” to Cris, who is remarkably understanding and supportive.  While I tore myself from the bed, grabbing pants and a shirt, Cris located my binoculars..   Of course it took far too long for me to get on the balcony and the bird was long gone but there was no doubt.  species 100 is Snow Bunting.   Today, November 13, I was up at 8 am, sitting on the window ledge, window wide open, me half hanging out, when I heard another Snow Bunting’s crisp and clear clarion note, followed by the trill.

So here I sit ready to celebrate with a nice meal, with a good wine and Cris who puts up with my obsession.   I am happy that she has grown to love the birds also, especially some of the regulars – goldies, “di dis”, Sitelles,  Cuckoos (downy woodpecker), Cardinal, but especially the crazy Blue Jays!


Cristina Navarro holding her favorite species: a Blue Jay

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One Comment

    Myrna Wood

    Prince Edward County Field Naturalists


    “IBAs, the most important places on earth for birds, are today as imperilled as the species of concern they harbour.” Birdlife International. March 2015

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