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May 25, 2020 . . . the Fallout

June 2, 2020

This post describes how I spent May 25th, 2020. I did what is called a “big day” in the birding world, as part of a fundraising event organized by Birds Canada called the Great Canadian Birdathon. The idea is to raise money for a good cause by trying the find as many bird species as you can in one day. Birds Canada allows birdathon participants to dedicate most of the funds raised to a nature charity of choice. My choice is the Bruce Peninsula Bird Observatory (BPBO), an organization that I co-founded in 2001. You can read about this history in my previous blog post. Now birdathon has its own rules, the main of which is to only count bird species that you are absolutely certain of observing. The rest is flexible, so my two birdathons had simple rules: stay within an approximate 3 kilometre perimeter of our apartment, travel only by foot or bicycle, and limit my observations to the same calendar day. Anything that I can identify by sight or sound, I can include on my list. So here is the account of this fascinating and very exciting day.

Yea, that’s me a year ago, in Peru on the Inca Trail overlooking Macchu Pichu

Ah, before launching into the account, I want to thank those of you who have already sponsored me or my BPBO Corvid-2020 Team. If you haven’t done that yet, I would deeply appreciate your support as would the entire BPBO community. Your support would make a huge difference for us in this very difficult year. BPBO’s mission to be the voice for birds on the Bruce Peninsula needs financial backing to pay our contractors, insurance, keep our website operating and help maintain our assets at the Cabot Head Research Station. Please give generously by going to this link.

Beep beep beep . . . I mechanically reach for my watch and stop the sound before it wakes my wife. So tempting to roll back over for five more minutes. “Don’t you dare” shouts a voice in my head, recalling times when those five minutes became three hours. So I throw myself from bed, pull on my underwear and leave the room, closing the door quietly behind me. On the couch is a neat pile of clothing: outdoor pants, sweatshirt, socks, ballcap, all ready for me. I dress quickly, hit the bathroom, down a cup of water, and head out onto the balcony. Four am. The wind is humid, warm and light from the south, and I realize the rain expected over night did not happen. Robins and Cardinals are starting to sing, but just as I consider what to do next the first drop of rain hits my face. Then it falls harder, and soon the bird song is completely muffled by the drum of rain drops. I head in and check the Weather Network radar map. It looks like the rain will move on by 6:30. I relent to my fatigue and return to bed, setting my timer for 1 hour. At 5:30 I am back on the balcony, slightly refreshed. The rain continues, but lighter. I hear Swainson’s Thrushes singing in the neighbourhood. That boosts my spirit, making me believe that a fallout has happened! So I make a coffee, grab a bagel, and return to my station on the balcony. Around 6:00 a strange honking sound grabs my attention just in time to look up and witness about 20 smallish dark geese fly rapidly just over our roof top, headed west directly away from me. These were Brant, a first for my birding from the balcony list, and a great birdathon species.

This flock of Brant were observed later in the day near Parque Moussette

This energized me. Brant were observed about a week before on the Ottawa river, but without any reports since, this was truly unexpected, as I had thought that this very ephemeral species had moved on towards its Arctic breeding grounds. Gatineau fortunately happens to be a pit stop on this goose’s migration between the Atlantic Ocean and its high Arctic breeding grounds. Over the next 30 minutes I heard several new species including Tennesse Warbler, a dull greyish-green bird with a distinctive accelerating song, Scarlet Tanagers, whose song has been described as a Robin with a sore throat, and the sweet whistles of Baltimore Orioles. What a start!

By 6:45 I was on my bike, heading into Gatineau Park, at a very slow pace. Swainson’s Thrushes were singing everywhere. By the time I reached the parking lot for the main entrance at 7:30, I had 10 warbler species including Bay-breasted and Cape May, plus four species of vireos, more than I observed on Birdathon-1. However, other species that I was expecting, including Winter Wren and Wood Thrush, were not at the rendez-vous. Was I too late, or had they moved on from the past week? I covered a similar path with my bike that I had the previous Sunday, but I started nearly two hours later because of the rain. I returned home about 9:00 am for a short breakfast, before heading down to the river behind the University on my bike with my scope in tow. A Blackpoll Warbler sang from just above me along the bike trail. As this species is another “ephemeral” migrant . . . there one day and gone the next . . . I took extra time to seek it out and photograph it with the new camera.

Blackpoll Warbler

From the lookout over the river, I could clearly see the bird colonies with the usual suspects – Ring-billed Gull the most numerous, followed by Double-crested Cormorant, with a handful of Black-crowned Night Herons and two pairs of Herring Gulls, at the highest points of the colony. I learned years before that it is not uncommon for a larger species of gull to nest at the highest point in these multi species colonies, and both island colonies were consistent with this pattern.

Eastern Kingbirds were much more common along the riverine vegetation. Such a fun, exciting, and appropriately-named bird, snapping up flying insects, and chasing any larger bird that dares venture into its territory. High overhead a distant but emphatic “Keeeerr” caught my attention. Scanning the sky revealed 6 very high Common Terns moving west . . . unexpected! I rode on to my vantage point over the Ottawa River near the Champlain Bridge where I had spotted three species of Merganser a week ago. This time no Mergansers, though the very handsome Wood Ducks were there.

Leaving the river, I rode to the community gardens where the mama Killdeer continued to brood her babies within a hazard-taped-off area. A few other species were added on my way back home, and by the time I parked my bike I had reached 75 species. It was noon, and I was at 75 at 10 am the week before, so I knew getting to 83 would be tough.

At 2 pm, after lunch and a short nap, with my batteries recharged, I left for a long walk into the Lac des Fées sector of Gatineau Park. I had my scope, disassembled on my back, along with binoculars and a camera. Early during the walk I heard a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, singing in a cedar forest, about a kilometre from our place. Just before I had mused about the lack of flycatchers, so it was as if my prayers were answered. Shortly after, I spotted the Great Horned Owl, who has suffered from non-stop verbal abuse by a murder of crows for several weeks. I glimpsed its large rounded, brownish wing as it fled from its adversaries.

Walking along the trail near Lac des Fées, after spotting a Belted Kingfisher, I noticed another flycatcher that called distinctively from the shrubs in front of me. Eventually I was able to observe it sallying back and forth, greenish-grey with wingbars and a very faint eye ring. An Alder Flycatcher! Again, I was delighted. I continued onto the lookout over Lac des Fées. To my disappointement, there was a young person with fishing rod and a ghetto blaster playing loud music across the lake in exactly the spot that was the only habitat for shorebird species such as Yellowlegs or Solitary Sandpiper. Undeterred, I scanned with my binoculars the shoreline then the treeline. A small bird at the top of a tree, across from me but about 200 metres away caught my eye. Another flycatcher? I had a hard time judging size and could not see field marks with my binoculars, so out comes the scope. This bird was very cooperative, despite the disruptive kid about 50 metres away from it. The bird would fly off in pursuit of some insect, then return to its perch. Once I got the scope on it, I noticed it was looking away from me, so I only saw the back initially. What grabbed my attention were tiny white patches on the sides of its back, that appeared to be covered up by the wings. The only flycatcher that I know with these white pathes is the Olive-sided Flycatcher, a threatened species in Canada. The patches were barely visible and I could not see the front of the bird, but, as if it could hear my thoughts, it moved its wings and revealed two beautiful large white patches confirming its identify. Eventually it changed position, flew off and returned and I was rewarded with wonderful views from the front also. I managed to take a few pictures that were not great because of the grey background and the distance. Three species of flycatcher, all tough ones to find on most days, made this afternoon walk particularly rewarding.

Olive-sided Flycatcher

I returned home for dinner at 6 pm, tallying up at 80 species, three short of my target from last time. I decided that my best hope for adding a few species was to return to the area near the bridge where I might find the Hooded Merganser, and then head into Gatineau Park, hoping that either the Winter Wren or the Wood Thrush would be vocalizing near dusk. The bridge proved to be well worth the visit. As soon as I got off my bike, I noticed a pair of Hooded Mergansers on the river. They had heard my thoughts.

A scan with the scope revealed two Common Mergansers further off, under the bridge. Suddenly I was at 82 species with about an hour of sunlight left. With wind in my sails, I rode into Gatineau Park. Try as I might, I heard no new species. Finally, at 8:40, I started heading back, passing through an area where I had picked up a White-throated sparrow the week before. I whistled my best White-throated sparrow song, but no one answered. Finally I headed into a subdivision in hope of something, anything to get me to 83, as time was running out. Then from high overheard I heard it. “Peet” “Peet” Unmistakable. I stopped my bike immediately, searched the sky and there it was. Species 83, a Common Nighthawk. Fittingly another Federally Threatened bird species, that migrates late in the spring, and was likely heading much further north, having spent its winter in Brazil. Nighthawks have a special place in my heart, due to a nostalgia from knowing the species as a child. Hearing and seeing the Nighthawk was a fitting end to Birdathon-2, on which I observed exactly the same number of species as I had on Birdathon-1, eight days earlier. even though at least a third of the species were different. Here is a last treat video clip that I took from a wetland near the Ottawa River.

Not for the squeamish

Again, if you are able to support BPBO by sponsoring me, I would be extremely grateful. Please go to this link to make a donation.

Thank you so much!


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