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Birding from the Balcony is Back

April 27, 2022

The last post about the joy of birding from the place where I live was April 22, 2021. Twelve months later, and 16 months into our house on the street named after the Goldfinch tells me that an update blog post is overdue to say the least. I say that with a modicum of shame. Last year, in a rash move to commit more time to writing in my blog, I purchased a two-year subscription with Word Press, with some fancy updates as well as a subscription in Master Class. My wife raised an eyebrow when I told her about this, but I was determined to write more, and improve my story telling.  “So how’s that been?” someone might sarcastically ask me today, and rightly so. It’s sucked – no way around it. Zero posts since my birdathon post last May, which I do not really count as a post. No excuses.

That’s not to say I haven’t found time to bird since mid-April last year. I have indeed. It turns out birding is easier, and more fun than writing. Anyway, returning to subject of birding from our new house, the options here are more pleasant than our previous apartment, as charming as it was. Here we have a lovely backyard, three mature trees, copious seed-bearing perennials and wildflowers, and an amazing neighbourhood with over 40% forest cover that I describe in the previous post here.

I enjoy the thought of being able to observe 100 species within a calendar year from my own yard. That seems like a decent target that requires a commitment of time and maintenance of my bird identification skills. In the 10 years that I kept records from rue Boucherville, I hit or surpassed 100 species three times: 100 in 2016, 102 in 2019, and 112 in 2020.  Therefore, I was very curious to know what the new house would offer. 

We spent the first couple of months in our new abode fixing things and moving in, hence there was little time for birding.  By mid April I was able to enjoy the yard more and grow the bird list.  By the end of April, I had observed 52 species, and by the end of May, an impressive 94 species. Not even five months and nearly 100 species! We had moved into bird heaven no less, it appeared. I figured that, even without any luck, I could easily challenge the mega year of 112 species at rue Boucherville.

Birding in May had many highlights. One was a flock of 85 Brant flying over the house on May 16th. Like so many species, I heard them first, then spotted a long line of Brant flying from east to west. Brant have a distinctive cackling call that sounds a bit like barnyard geese. In Gatineau and Ottawa, Brant are a regular treat each year, passing through for a few days on their migration between the Atlantic Ocean and the Arctic where they breed. I’ve learned in the last few years that one needs to be alert and outside in mid to late May to notice this ephemeral migrant pass through the region. On the 19th I heard a Wood Thrush’s ethereal song from the nearby forest. The same day, a Bobolink announced its presence as it flew high over our neighbourhood. Lucky for me, I happened to be listening and detected its distinctive flight call. Both of these species are species at risk, so hearing them is both a treat and an alert to their plight. Knowing the songs and call notes is one of the keys to identifying a large number of species from a house or a yard, as often one doesn’t see the bird. Of course it doesn’t matter how good your identification skills are if you don’t put in the hours outside or listening from an open window. Fortunately, for me, I was also outside listening when an Eastern Bluebird, a Killdeer and a Common Loon vocalized while flying over, on their way somewhere to the north of us.  

In June, another highlight came from the nest box attached to the garden shed. A pair of Black-capped Chickadees took up occupancy in early May. In mid-June, their nest fledged all six young! Congratulations Chickadee family!  This same nest box fledged young on our balcony on Boucherville in 2020. Certainly, it must be a good house for Chickadees!  I watched the adults collecting food on several occasions. Sometimes there were only three to five minutes between feedings and other times over 20 minutes.  The Chickadees were so good at gleaning caterpillars and other arthropods from the foliage, trees and shrubs in our yard. Based on my observations, I calculated that the pair consumed 15,000 caterpillars by the time their chicks fledged. One nesting pair of Chickadees = healthy trees!

Six Baby Belugas. . . or rather Chickadees

On June 10, a Yellow-billed Cuckoo wandered into our yard, announcing itself with a loud song and then was gone just as quickly. The abundance of Tent Caterpillars and Gypsy Moth caterpillars undoubtedly fed many Cuckoo nestlings in the Outaouais in 2021.

On June 18, I observed the 98th species, a Common Yellowthroat, likely a young wandering male, heard singing from the nearby forest. After that, remarkably, I only observed three more species: one in July, one in August, and the last, a Red-tailed Hawk, on October 5, for 101 species in 2021 from my house and yard. The lesson is within this a very appropriate axiom involving birds: don’t count your chickens before the eggs hatch.

Notes on adding habitat for birds

In the fall, we installed a triple bird feeder that sits atop a three-metre metal pole, secured to the back of the deck. After some trial and error, we added an effective squirrel deterrent that involves two slinkies and weekly applications of vegetable oil. The feeders include a peanut feeder for the Jays, a sunflower (shelled) feeder that is a hit with Goldfinches, Pine Siskins, Common Redpolls and a few Hoary Redpolls, Black-capped Chickadees and White-breasted Nuthatches, and a nyger feeder that gets the least traffic. At least one of the resident Chickadees always stops to peck at the nyger feeder first.

Frenetic feeding during winter storm showing the feeder setup with “squirrel-proofing”

The Jays are always interesting characters to watch. One of the unusual behaviours that we have observed, that adds some validity to the idea that animals cooperate with each other, involves at least one Jay regularly throwing one or more peanuts in the shell to the deck below (sometimes three or four) before taking one or two.  Sometimes the Gray Squirrels are standing on their back legs, looking longingly up at the feeder with the big Blue Jays, and occasionally they get rewarded.

We also have a suet feeder and water containers. The suet feeder was eventually discovered by the big guy, who visited regularly through the winter to feast on wild grapes growing amongst the tree branches in the back of our yard.

Grand Pic at suet feeder

We made the sliding glass doors onto the deck safe (they are only about 4 or 5 m from the feeders), by hanging strings on wool, weighted by wine corks, as well as some feather-friendly tape markings. I am 100% sure that this has prevented many collisions. Everyone should take a few minutes to save bird lives in this way. Solutions can be simple like ours. Birds don’t see glass, just the reflections, or what’s on the other side.

Applying Feather Friendly tape to glass door.
Common Redpolls and American Goldfinches on the deck through protective chords on doors. Winter 2022
Hoary Redpoll in the garden, just outside my office window! Winter, 2022

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3 Comments
  1. Sean permalink

    Keep ‘the posts coming.

  2. You’ve figured that out:)

  3. Deborah Doherty permalink

    Great account of your year of birding last year. Looking forward to hearing more stories as we move into spring migration.

    Deb

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