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Birding from the Balcony: 2020 year in review

January 5, 2021
News flash – We are moving in January . . . to a street with the name of a bird in Gatineau. The balcony list will be no longer. Instead, I will begin a yard list, as we will have a proper yard – complete with deck, plants, shrubbery and a few trees. We will be near a large forest, so the bird list should be pretty good, but our current location will be hard to match. Ted on balcony with equipment This is my final summary of many years of birding from the balcony, and inside our lovely apartment. In fact, I’ve been living in this house for nearly 15 years, over 10 from our current top floor apartment. As described before, this apartment lends itself to birding with its east-facing windows that open onto a canopy-level extension of Gatineau Park forest. The west-facing balcony, in front of a very bird-friendly clump of Manitoba Maples and Japanese Elms, has a clear view to the north and to the south. It also has an array of bird feeders and water containers. The kitchen window on the north (I spend lots of time in the kitchen cooking), faces our neighbours’ four mighty spruce trees. From the balcony, when I look south, I can see over the Ottawa River, about 600 metres away, behind l’Université de Québec en Outaouais campus and a cemetery. Although trees and a few buildings obscure the river, I have spotted many different species of birds flying above the river that I would otherwise not have observed, including all of the swallow species, and many species of waterfowl and raptors, which migrate along the river corridor.
The gang watches pileated on feeder

The gang piles on to enjoy watching the big pileated whacking the suet

I started keeping a serious annual list of birds observed from our place in 2012, observing 81 species that year. My rules were simple: I must be in the apartment or on the balcony to count a species. If I can identify it by either sight or sound, I can count it. All my records were submitted to eBird, and subject to review by the regional eBird reviewer. I explained on my profile how this started as a friendly competition with my friend and past colleague Alan Woodhouse. That was even before eBird had a “yard list” option on its website. Over the years, I identified many of the birds on my lists only by sound, several of those from bed. I recall waking to the deep hooting of a Great Horned Owl a few years back that was conveniently perched just beyond the window in the Japanese Elm. Another time a Carolina Wren literally woke me at 5h30 am, singing so loudly that it sounded like it was in our bedroom! There are so many examples like that, but my “lesson” is to sleep with the window open enough to let in the sounds from outside. Incredibly, often those bird songs work their way into my dreams. Countless times, I have identified a bird species in my dream, woken up, and realized that the actual bird was singing nearby.

Great Horned Owl

While it may sound like I am obsessed with listing birds, that is not the case. I admit to enjoying keeping lists, but for me listing is an incentive to put in the time to observe birds. I enjoy just as much marvelling at their beauty and their fascinating behaviours. We have had some exceptional birds over the years. Three standouts were, without question: 1. Golden Goldie, 2, Peggy the Chickadee, and 3, Barred Owl. If you haven’t read about these guys in my earlier posts, let me quickly acquaint you with them. Golden Goldie was like no other. A spectacular breeding plumage after-second-year male American Goldfinch who showed up at our feeder for three consecutive years from November to March each winter. While all of the other male goldfinches wore their drab winter clothing of dullish green-gray and pale yellow, Golden Goldie shone like the sun. We became very attached to this marvel. You will hear more about him in a future post.
Golden Goldie

Golden Goldie

Peggy won our hearts because of her courage and strength. One day a few years back, we noticed a chickadee at our feeder with an injured leg. It was only using one leg, the other appeared to be either dislocated at the ankle or broken. A month or two later that part of the leg was gone and all that remained was a stump from the healed-over ankle. That one-legged Peggy persisted for over a year, throughout that winter and spring, the following summer and throughout the following fall and winter. She made us cry.

Peggy the Chickadee

Finally there was the Barred Owl who actually visited our house. I spotted it first in the neighbour’s tree and watched it fend of three devious crows bent at dispatching the larger more dangerous nocturnal predator from the neighbourhood. The owl managed to survive the crows and stayed around to our neighbours delight for several days. One day, when Cris was home during the day, she went to the kitchen window overlooking our balcony, and to her astonishment found the Barred Owl sitting on the railing staring at her. She invited it in for coffee and mice, but it refused, preferring to watch the squirrels in the Japanese Elm, making its plan for an evening meal.

Barred Owl visits Cris

I get deep satisfaction from observing birds from my little patch of the world. While I may occasionally drive somewhere to observe a rare bird, this is not my typical behaviour. I find it a challenge to justify wasting energy and resources for simply getting a bigger list. I also think that it is more challenging to observe and identify birds from the same location. I recall Bill Wilson, one of my mentors from my Waterloo days, saying that if you put in enough time at any good location, eventually you will get an impressive list of species because they all pass over your area at some point on their migrations. I am fortunate to live in a “good location”, and Bill’s advice has certainly turned out true for me. Thank you Bill, and my professor mentors Paul Eagles, Greg Michalenko, and George Francis who taught me well, Frank Glew, Ken Quanz, and my colleagues in Waterloo, and many dear friends such as Phil and Rod. And of course, thanks to my family for putting up with my passion. Ok, I wasn’t expecting to say this, but on other hand, it’s about time that I acknowledge that my passion and interest in birds is built on the shoulders of others. So, I did say that this blog post was the year in review, so let’s get to that. In 2012, I observed 81 species. In 2016, I hit exactly 100 – the first time I got to that magic number. 2019 was the second time – and I managed 102 species. 2020 was the ninth year for my apartment/balcony list. All of the ingredients were there to break my record for 102. I was confined at home most of the time due to Covid-19. Accordingly, we made no long trips in May or June as I had done in previous years, and, as I’ll explain later, I could hear the birds better in 2020 then ever before. No, it’s not because of some miracle anti-aging drug, but rather a disease called Covid-19. So, this was the year to “go for it” and try for my biggest list year from our place. Due to Covid, I was, like most office workers, working from my “home office” AKA dining room table. A few times that home office was the small coffee table on the deck. What a difference it makes to be around more. Most days in the spring, I would spend an hour or two on the balcony before starting work. Sometimes I was out at 5 or 5h30 am, siting quietly, listening and watching. I am sure that many of the species observed in 2020 were a direct result of simply being at the house or on the balcony and putting in the hours. So, here’s what happened in 2020. January 2020 was extremely slow. I didn’t enter one checklist from our place, but we did have an extremely productive trip to my friend Marc-Antoine Montpetit’s place north of Mont Laurier, and had a feast of winter birds, particularly crossbills and eagles. Back at home, we only had the winter ‘regulars’ visiting our feeders. For Cris and I, our 10th wedding anniversary was coming up in early March and we were planning on celebrating in Cuba. Call it indecision, or intuition, but whatever one attributes it to, it is true that we were fortuitously slow in booking our travel, and by early February, it was clear that travelling outside of Canada would be stupid, as COVID cases were surging well beyond China. Instead, we booked a cabin in the Parc de la Jacques Cartier in mid-March. The rest of February was dull from birding point of view at our place. By month’s end, my year list was only 13 species, three less than the same point in 2019. On March 14, the night before leaving for Quebec, I awoke to new sounds in the middle of night, deep hoots of a Great Horned Owl, and the shrills cries of the first Ring-billed Gulls that had rode the wave of warmer air up the Ottawa River, along with the first Canada Geese honks. We left on the 15th for Quebec. On the 16th, the pandemic was declared. We had to abbreviate our trip, watching and listening on the radio as Quebec, Canada and the world shut down before our eyes. We returned to our apartment to a changed world on March 19. I am extremely fortunate to work for Nature Canada, one of Canada’s oldest nature conservation charities, in what is, for most of the year, an office job. Office jobs became home-office jobs overnight across much of Canada. This suited me fine, as it gave me more time to bird from our house in the early morning before ‘going to work’ in the dining room. Not only was I around to see and hear the birds in the early morning and later in the day, but there were few competing sounds. Industry halted. The streets were empty. Only birds were in the sky. It was remarkable. The constant din of urban noise was silenced. While there was something unsettling about the vacant streets and lack of noise, it was good for my spirit, and good for the senses. For the first time I was hearing sounds that I wasn’t able to hear previously. In this video, shot on a nearby street, the lack of cars takes a funny twist. By the end of March, I added twenty species, finishing in a flurry with many early migrants like Turkey Vulture and Eastern Phoebe, and a few new species for the house never previously observed by me. These included American Woodcock, whose twittering courtship display drifted to my ears (thanks to the Covid lockdown) from its provenance behind the University, a small group of Northern Pintails, observed flying fast over the river, and a procession of Wild Turkeys marching through the forest across the street from us. The 33 species at the end of March was 10 more than at the same time in 2019. April was an excellent birding month from home, as had been the case the previous year. April is a month that many species of birds can slip past undetected if you are not alert and in the right place at the right time. Three species that fit that bill are Brown Creeper, Winter Wren and Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, all observed by me from our place in 2020. Access to the habitats on all four sides of the house was crucial for these and other species. For example, part of my birding routine involved rotating between time on the balcony and time on the opposite side of the house that faces Gatineau Park. I would perch (sit) on the frame of the east facing window to listen to the sounds emanating from the forest. One day while perched on the window frame, my ears detected the distant trilling song of a Winter Wren, whose voice would have otherwise been obscured by city noise. May is the ‘make or break’ month for bird listing in this part of the world. That is when the bulk of the migratory birds pass through our area. It is estimated that several million pass through the air space of Ottawa and Gatineau. A good proportion of them stop over in our parks, forests and yards, to seek rest and sustenance. Sometimes it seems that if you blink you might miss some of them, so the senses need to be sharpened and every effort is needed to catch the passage of migrants at dawn and at dusk when daily activity peaks. May did not disappoint in 2020, and it started with a bang for me. On May 1st, I awoke to the songs of an Eastern Towhee – a first for our house, and a Brown Thrasher, which I had only detected a few times over the years. These two outstanding species were singing powerfully from the neighbour’s trees. I wondered if other people in the neighbourhood noticed them and if any were delighted like me to hear these magnificent voices. Great songs they do have. The Towhee was belting out “Drink Your Tea,” and the Thrasher was rattling off short repeated phrases that resonated off the building walls. Click here  to listen to one minute and 17 seconds of the audio scape on May 1, 2020, and listen carefully for our two star birds.  I rushed from bed, threw on some clothes, grabbed my camera and binoculars, and headed for the balcony. The two beautiful songsters hung around the neighbourhood for 30 minutes or so. A bit later in the morning, I heard a Wood Thrush singing from the other side of the house – an extremely early observation for that species.
towhee good

Eastern Towhee

There were many great moments like that in May. On May 16 and May 25, I dedicated both days to Birdathon, an annual fundraiser for bird conservation. I direct my raised funds to the Bruce Pensinsula Bird Observatory. I spent about 18 hours birding each day, pretty much non-stop. I allowed myself to leave the house and travel within a three-kilometre radius by bike or by foot. Both days I tallied 84 species and raised about $4,000 for BPBO. I also started both days on the balcony at my place and thus added some species to my year list. One highlight from early morning on May 25, was observing a small flock of dark geese fly determinedly over our apartment towards the river. Though they passed straight over my head from behind, and were flying straight away from me, I was able to identify them by their strong and direct flight, their dark plumages and the one honk that I heard that was definitely not Canada Goose. I thank my Sibley app on my cell phone for helping confirm the sound afterwards. These were Brant geese, an uncommon goose species, whose spring migration between the Atlantic Ocean and Hudson Bay always occurs around the same time in May. Ottawa/Gatineau are directly on the migration path, and if one is observant and lucky, one can spot Brant near the Ottawa River between May 20 and May 30. I had never observed Brant from our place so this was a delightful observation, bumping up my birding from the balcony total for the year to 102 species. Woohoo!

Brant Geese on Ottawa River

June and July were quite. We were able to get away camping to Parc national de Mont Tremblant for which I describe some wonderful birding experiences in my previous blog post. The next new species from our place was not until August 1 – a Red-breasted Nuthatch. This delightful little bird seems to show up in our neighbourhood in August, likely a result of post breeding dispersal from other areas in Gatineau or in Gatineau Park where they breed. The year after my daughter was born, we had Red-breasted Nuthatches nesting in an old apple tree in our yard in Waterloo. I even wrote a small article about this nest record for Ontario Birds. If you have mature spruce or fir trees nearby, Red-breasted Nuthatch will eventually end up feeding in them as they love the seeds from conifer cones.
Red-breasted Nuthatch

Red-breasted Nuthatch

On August 17, I was drawn to the balcony, and to my delight several Common Nighthawks drifted past with their unmistakable flight pattern and shape. This is one of my many favourite species. They have tremendous migrations that take them from the northern boreal forest to deep into South America – likely Brazil, where they spend their non-breeding season. A friend of mine, Jamie Bastedo, wrote a fictional story called Nighhawk that describes the annual migration of this bird in Potter/Burgess style with a bit more edge. I rounded out September by adding two more early fall migrants that I missed in the spring, a Northern Parula,  gorgeous warbler that breeds just to the north of us, and one of my favourite songsters, the Hermit Thrush. The latter enthusiastically feasted on an abundant crop of berries in the Virginia Creeper that envelops a small apartment building about 30 metres away. The final batch of species observed in 2020 were the early winter migrants. In 2019 they were essentially absent, but not 2020. In the birding world within the heavily settled parts of southern Quebec and Ontario, birders wait with baited breath to see if the ‘winter finches’ will show up any given year. Highly dependent on the seed crops of various tree species in the expansive boreal regions of Canada, one can go several years without observing any one of them in the south, because they stay in the boreal forest, or hit the jackpot, when we are flooded with winter finches due to cone crop failure in the north. In the late fall of 2020, there was an impressive push of these winter finches through our area (due to a bad year for their natural food sources), though most didn’t stay around for long. It started with Pine Siskins, the small, streaky, goldfinch-like bird that enjoys nyger seed feeders as much as any other species. Late October and early November produced five more species, Bohemian Waxwing, Evening Grosbeak, American Tree Sparrow, Common Redpoll and Pine Grosbeak. There have been no new species since November 8, but honestly, I’ve barely spent time on the balcony for several reasons, including the pending move.
BOWX with berry

Bohemian Waxwing

So that is my year, the final year at our lovely place near the Ottawa River, overlooking Gatineau Park. The sheer joy and excitement that birds bring me is hard to describe. It keeps me going some days and renews my spirit. We have been so fortunate to live in a place where we can enjoy nature. 2020 was a year when nature stood out. It was an outstanding year for nature. It was an outstanding year for observing nature, and nature’s messengers, the birds. I look forward to new experiences, new bird lists, and new stories at our new house, but that will never replace my experiences and memories of birding from the balcony. What a pleasure it is to recount them here.

My ‘equipment’ for early morning birding from the balcony

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  1. Wow! I’m so happy for you. I agree, it’s not the listing so much as the observing, learning new things, even about birds I think I know. My eBird lists often have lots of remarks written in my comments sections. I still cannot get over your owl pictures. I look forward to seeing what happens next in the new yard.

  2. Thanks David. Kind thoughts. It is exciting to move to a new spot where everything will be a discovery for a while. Not unlike travelling to a new area. Except a lot more work.

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