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Birding from the Balcony: 2020 year in review

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

A great birding moment in Parc National du Mont Tremblant on July 3, 2020.

After cycling 54 kilometres from Saint Faustin du Caré to the Mont Tremblant Village and back on Thursday, I was ready for a restful Friday morning with reading time in the hammock and a cool swim before heading home. That was until Cris talked me into going birding. “Don’t you want to find the Bicknell’s Thrush on le Carcan?” she implored over dinner on Thursday evening.  That was all I needed to hear. Cris had been with me on several occasions when I had failed to find a Bicknell’s Thrush, including one earlier in the week at Mont Johansen in the Park. Friday was our last of five days in Parc national du Mont Tremblant and the last opportunity to try and find this elusive species. My history with the species was one of failure, so what would be different this time? “You’ll get your bird this time” she said confidently. I wasn’t so confident.

Bicknell’s Thrush is a Threatened songbird that lives on the mountaintops of northeastern North America. Most of its range is in Quebec where it occurs in dense stunted spruce forests, mainly above 700 metres away from the Atlantic coast. Bicknell’s Thrush migrates to the Greater Antilles, overwintering on high elevations in Cuba, Hispaniola, and Puerto Rico. Extreme deforestation on the wintering grounds, climate change, and habitat loss on the mountaintops on the breeding grounds is threatening the species’ survival.

Cris with our car in the Carcan parking lot.

Next morning I was up making coffee at 5H30 and we broke camp by 7 am, but didn’t reach the Carcan Trail Head until 8:30. The road to the trailhead was rough.  Hoards of hungry mosquitos awaited us in the parking lot, along with a sign stating that the trail had received no maintenance for over a year. The Carcan Trail is a 14 km round trip hike with a vertical climb of 530 metres.  At 883 metres above sea level, Le Carcan is the second highest peak in the expansive Parc national du Mont Tremblant and one with historical records of this rare thrush, the only regularly occurring songbird in Eastern Canada that I have not observed. I was cautiously optimistic. Even with no Thrush, the hike would be a good physical challenge and worth it.

Cris on the beaver dam

The trail was indeed a challenge. The first 1.5 kilometres followed an old logging road. That’s where we encountered the first trees across the trail. Once the trail left the logging road, the first real test came. The path led straight into a small lake, emerging about 30 metres beyond. It was not clear how we could cross this without getting very wet. However, a bit of off trail exploring led to the beaver dam that had caused the flood. We had to cross about 30 metres of dam to get to dryer land on the other side, then work our way through the forest to find the trail. Once back on the trail, we continued through maple and birch lowlands, before starting up the base of the mountain. The trail meandered along, adjacent to a tumbling stream with attractive waterfalls. The bird community was vibrant and the air full of song, dominated by the uniquitous Swainson’s Thrush (close cousin of the Bicknell’s Thrush). There were also Veerys, Hermit Thrushes, White-throated Sparrows, Winter Wrens, and several warbler species including Black-throated Green, Black-throated Blue, Northern Parula, American Redstart, Black and White, Chestnut-sided, Blackburnian, Ovenbird, and Yellow-rumped. Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, Red-breasted Nuthatches, and Blue-headed Vireo were also common.

At times, it was challenging to locate the trail, which was often blocked by fallen trees. As we climbed, the forest changed from mixed hardwoods and conifers to spruce and fir conifer forest. I encountered the first ‘boreal’ species of bird just after kilometre 4 – a stunning Black-backed Woodpecker. Shortly after, a family of Boreal Chickadees announced their presence with their wheezy “sick a djee” calls, along with a Pine Siskin.

Spruce Grouse with chicks along le Carcan in Parc National du Mont Tremblant

Around the 5 km mark, we spotted a Spruce Grouse displaying on the side of the trail. Just beyond was its brood of at least four Spruce Grouse chicks. These were all somewhat unexpected boreal species that I was delighted to observe! With a kilometre to go, the trail was nearing the summit and the forest was noticeably shorter and denser, and dominated by spruce. Though I had never observed a Bicknell’s Thrush in its breeding habitat, I knew that we were in the right place, and with a bit of luck, we might be rewarded.

Finally we reached the top, where there was an exposed rock area to sit for lunch and take in the view. Swainson’s Thrushes were still present, without doubt the most numerous species throughout the trail. There were also a few other species singing, including Magnolia, Nashville, and Yellow-rumped Warblers. It was about noon by this time and the bird song level had subsided.

While at the summit, we were joined by two other hikers with whom we shared our experiences and thoughts about the trail. During this conversation I heard a call note that caused me to pause and to excuse myself from the conversation. I walked a few metres to get a better view into the dense forest of where the sound was coming from. I was extremely excited as I was certain the call was from a Bicknell’s Thrush. The call note was emphatic and high-pitched with a definite descending tone, completely different from the call note of the Swainson’s Thrush, which ascends. The call came from the dense stunted spruce forest in front of us.  The bird called frequently, and after a minute or two, to my delight, it burst into song, a distinctive descending fluted song.  I pulled out my phone to listen to the Bicknell’s Thrush song on my Sibley app.  Sure enough the singing bird was confirmed. I then pished and watched, and the bird responded by flying past, through the Spruce trees in front of me.  I was able to see its rich reddish-brown back as it flew by twice. It continued singing as I soaked up this wonderful moment. Eventually I settled back down with the others, excusing myself for leaving the conversation. The other two hikers were fascinated by both me and the bird. I looked up and noticed two Turkey Vultures soaring over the summit with a raven-sized raptor aggressively driving them away. The powerful bird was my favourite bird of prey, a Northern Goshawk!  Goshawk is the epitome of power. Years can pass for me without seeing one. When I do, I get goosebumps. I had goshawk goosebumps on my Bicknell’s thrush goosebumps!

Hear the Bicknell’s Thrush call notes, and my own whistled imitation, and see the Thrush’s habitat.

I finally sat down to finish my lunch, thinking how the hike was so worth the effort and how grateful I was of Cris for supporting my birding passion and for encouraging the hike. At that moment the beautiful notes of a Fox Sparrow’s song registered in my head. It may have been singing for a while without me noticing because of the Bicknell’s and the Goshawk.  I had not even realized that Fox Sparrow bred in Mont Tremblant Park, as it is really a northern boreal forest species, so this was a wonderful surprise. We were able to get excellent views of this top-notch singer, named because of its beautiful rusty plumage. 

Fox Sparrow singing near summit of le Carcan in Parc National du Mont Tremblant

Birding trips and hiking trips can be disappointing if we set our expectations too high. For the Carcan hike, I was hopeful, but without high expectations. On every front, both Cris and I were delighted and exhilated by the birds, the hike, and the nature. The Carcan trail is one of the best birding/hiking trips that I’ve done in Canada. 

May 25, 2020 . . . the Fallout

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

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Thank you so much!


Preparing for Birdathon 2 in my hood

Every year since 1981, I’ve participated in a “birdathon.” I learned about this in 1980, when I spend six weeks as a migration monitoring assistant with the Long Point Bird Observatory. The next year I joined in the Bird Observatory’s fund raiser, then called the Baillie Birdathon, in honour of Canadian ornithologist James L. Baillie in what has turned out to be a great day of fun as well as a fundraiser. Truth be told, I look forward to doing this birdathon as much as any single moment of the year. For the first few decades, I would get sponsors to pay me a per species rate, so there was a great incentive to see lots of birds. A few times I topped 150, which always was a bit of a magical target. I usually spent the day with other people – initially I recall doing birdathon with Phil Weller, a U of Waterloo friend and colleague. We did our birdathon in the Long Point area, which usually included walking from the Provincial Park to a Bird Observatory station called Breakwater, about half way out the peninsula, and back to the Park, about a 15 km round trip that involved wading through deep cuts of cold Lake Erie water in late April or early May. It was hardcore! We started at 4 am, and usually finished red-eyed and delirious around 11 pm. Once I started growing my family in the late 80’s and early 90’s, birdathons shifted to different areas, including Waterloo Region. Others, including family, joined in on the fun. Eventually, I connected with my buddy Rod Steinacher, and another friend Bruce Kellett. We started doing birdathon together on the upper Bruce Peninsula where Rod and his wife Noreen started living.

In 2001, Rod and I, along with a few others, co-founded the Bruce Peninsula Bird Observatory (BPBO). One nice feature that Bird’s Canada (which evolved from the Long Point Bird Observatory) has for Birdathon, (which is now called Great Canadian Birdathon), is that you can donate most of the funds you raise to an organization/charity of choice. Of course we chose our new baby, BPBO, as the recipient of our efforts. That tradition, of doing a birdathon on the upper Bruce Peninsula with Rod, carried on for nearly two decades, despite my move from near Guelph to Gatineau Quebec in 2006.

2012 birdathon Upper Bruce Peninsula Rod Steinacher, Ted Cheskey and Salvadora Morales

Three years ago, my daughter graduated from University of Ottawa’s School of Medicine, and the convocation ceremony was about the same time as birdathon. As the Steinacher’s didn’t want to miss my daughter’s honour and celebration and we didn’t want to forego a birdathon either, we chose to do it in the Gatineau/Ottawa area for the first time. The last two years I returned to the upper Bruce, but this year, due to Covid-19, no one is travelling anywhere. I decided to continue doing my birdathon for BPBO, alone for the first time, but to stay near our place in Gatineau – within 3 km, and only travel by foot or bicycle. No cars, or motorized travel. I also decided to do it twice. Why? Because I love spending a day hunting for birds. My senses are sharp, my body is on high alert to every movement, every sound. I really love pushing myself to find everything. It is a great rush of excitement and I also enjoy the physicality and eco-friendly aspects of no motorized travel.

Last Sunday, I did birdathon-1 starting at 3H30 am on our balcony, where I heard the first bird – a Swainson’s Thrush flying over, giving its distinctive call note. I then rode my bike into the southern end of Gatineau Park, in the dark, nearly 3 km from my house, to hear a Great Horned Owl hooting away, followed by a concert of Hermit and Wood Thrushes. It doesn’t get much better. The day went on to have its typical highs and lows. I was at 50 species by 7 am. 75 by 10 am. But by 5 pm, I was stuck at 81, only 6 species added between 10 am and 5 pm. I did a final bike ride where I added the two last species of the day, an Eastern Kingbird and a Pileated Woodpecker. After that, I did a long walk from 7 pm to 9 pm but added nothing new.

Reporting in near the end of Birdathon-1 for BPBO Corvid-2020

That’s the way a birdathon can go. I calculated that I walked about 14 km and biked nearly 30 km! All that in an area with a diameter of 6 km. I believe that 83 species for a urban area without grassland habitat or shorebird habitat was a good result, especially during a year with frighteningly few birds. That will be another blog story. In the meantime, I am preparing for Monday. Why Monday? Well, western Quebec and Eastern Ontario have been under a high pressure system with clear blue skies and warm temperatures for over a week, which means that the birds that are migrating up from the south are, for the most part, not stopping, but continuing on to the boreal forest. So. I am taking the day off work on Monday to do Birdathon-2 because it is expected to be rainy. Why, you must be wondering, am I planning on birding on a rainy day? I will be doing so (hoping it doesn’t rain all day), as I am counting on the clouds and rain to halt the migration so that birds are forced down and there will hopefully be more birds to find.

I’ve noticed relatively few individuals stopping in the trees near my place over the past several weeks due to the “great weather” as some people dear to me might say. Despite this “great weather” my “birding from the balcony” list is good this year because I’ve been working from home since mid-March and that has meant an hour or two of birding nearly each day from the house. When you can do that, eventually you see more species. I am already at 97 species for the year from our apartment, which is pretty good. But I’ve noticed that other good birders who keep “yard lists” on eBird are doing equally well, undoubtedly for the same reasons. So, I’ll fill you in, dear reader, with details of my second birdathon this Monday. Please sponsor me, if you haven’t already. To do so, please Go to this link

I will report back soon.

Signing off. .. .


The year of 2020 so far

Biologists describe the state of migration readiness for birds as “restlessness” or “agitation.” This state is triggered by hormonal changes caused by photoperiodism.  I figure that I may well have some bird DNA in my genes because that is exactly how I feel this time of year as the migration picks up. Or maybe it was that gull feather that I put in my back pocket of my jeans. Either way, I’m not sleeping well.  I wake up early. Waking up early is fine if you go to sleep early. My problem is that I don’t, so it catches up. But that Chickadee alarm clock that goes off at 5:15 am and pushes my out of bed most mornings by 5:30. The only medication for my restless, agitated state is birding. And fortunately that is so easy these days – just throw some clothes on, grab my binoculars and note book and step out onto the balcony.

Being in our apartment every day, all day, a consequence of COVID-19, has been good for my low carbon footprint birding this year, even though the migration has been very slow. I am pretty certain that I am well ahead of last year’s pace, which ended with a record 102 species for year. Yet, and let’s be honest about this, there are hardly any birds around compared with most years. The dawn chorus is still the neighbour Chickadees, the Cardinals and the Robins. Oh, they have been joined by the bubbling songs of the Ruby-crowned Kinglet and the clear whistled notes of the White-throated Sparrows. But where are the Warblers?

I can’t help but feel a dread that we have lost another billion birds this past year, on top of the three billion that scientists told us about last September. I’m just making the “one billion” number up but I may be not far off the mark. The thing is that bird observatories east of the Rockies, pretty much all reported near record or record low numbers of birds at their stations last fall. Perhaps the most noteworthy detail was the low proportion of “hatch year” birds recorded.  Most migration monitoring stations use mist-netting and banding as one of their methods to track migration. Among the data kept by each station about each bird banded is the bird’s age. Last fall, I heard several reports that the proportion of “hatch-year” birds, which normally make up the bulk of the catch in the fall, was very low, perhaps signalling breeding failure. This makes sense if we recall the continental weather pattern of last spring. Small lakes in the boreal forest were still frozen and there was snow in the bush well into June in many places. Temperatures in April, May and the first half of June were below normal through almost all of Canada east of Saskatchewan. Probably this meant that the warblers, and other insect eating species such as flycatchers and swallows had little or no food when they arrived on their breeding grounds from mid-May to early June. There is no point in trying to raise a family when you can’t feed them. Either there was massive nesting failure or the birds simply didn’t breed.

For most of these long-distance migratory species, they arrive on the clock, and have a very limited window of time to reproduce.  If that window starts closing down, they run out of time to complete the different stages of their breeding cycle which includes choosing a nest site, building the nest and defending a territory, laying and incubating eggs, tending the nestlings until they fledge, then looking after them of a period of time before the parents and the young birds can start their return migrations to wintering grounds. The later egg laying is initiated, the less time there is to complete the process. While I admit that this is speculation, I believe there is good reason to believe that the summer of 2019 may have dealt a crushing blow to many bird populations in eastern Canada, due to climate change-related weather patterns. This spring will confirm that.



Eastern Towhee

So does my experience to date this spring support a “lack of birds” hypothesis or not?  Species-wise, my year list from our place is very good compared with other years. I’ve already observed more waterfowl and birds of prey than most years and, as of today, added five new species to the list of birds observed from our place.  Perhaps the most unlikely was an Eastern Towhee that was singing within 25 m of the balcony on May 1, dueting it out with a Brown Thrasher.  I was so excited that I recorded the early morning chorus on my phone.


Another bird treat for this spring has been a group of five young crows. They play off each other, and definitely have that “bad boy” streak. Every day I see them marauding about the neighbourhood, pestering a Raven, harassing a squirrel, and even having a go at me. This happened on Saturday. As I sat on the window frame of the window overlooking the Park, they “sneak-attacked” me, swooping silently behind me and passing less then a metre over my head, one, then a second and a third. I was so startled that I toppled back into the apartment. I have no idea what they were doing, other then causing trouble. That’s what they do, and I must admit, I am getting my kicks from watching their antics, though they may have gotten the last laugh.

This weekend, we have had a stretch of the warmest weather of the year, hitting 20 C for the first time. So I’ve been expecting a rush of birds to accompany the brief southerly airflow, but it hasn’t happened. The only new birds for the weekend were a pair of Snow Geese (also a first for the house list) in a large flock of Canada Geese, heading north, and a Killdeer today. Snow geese . . . the name pretty much sums of the types of springs we have had the last two years now.  But the movement of geese to the north is great news for the Cree of James Bay, who are largely out on the land now, in their camps, waiting patiently for the geese to come. I wondered as I watched the noisy flocks pass high above, heading due north over Gatineau Park, whether any of them would end up in the cooking tents of any of my friends in the Cree communities around James Bay.

As of yet, the only warbler species to show up here is the Yellow-rumped, and only a handful. No other warblers, even on my walks into the nearby park. It is eerily quiet. Where are the warblers?

Next Saturday is World Migratory Bird Day. Nature Canada is hosting virtual bird day events that I will most certainly be involved in. As the forecast for next Saturday calls for a maximum of 5 degrees C and up to 3 cm of snow, I will be quite happy spending my bird day in our apartment, or on the balcony with a hot mug of tea, rather than in an exposed field somewhere in Ottawa trying to spot the elusive House Sparrow. I hope that the warblers, swallows and Purple Martins, Chimney swifts, hummingbirds, and all of their feathered cousins will be enjoying warmth, somewhere to the south of us, and waiting for the next blast of southerly warm maritime air to carry their fortunes north to my neighbourhood, then on to their breeding grounds.  I will happily enjoy my family of Chickadees on Bird Day as my source of bird joy, and maybe spot another species with “snow” as part of its name.



Black-capped Chickadee. Our cheerful neighbour in these tough times

We have been blessed this tough COVID-19 spring with a small dose of joy by the embodiment of cheerfulness, a pair of Black-capped Chickadees. They have finally taken up residence on our balcony. And that’s something as we are about 8 metres off the ground in the top floor of a three story house. But our balcony is a bit of a bird paradise, despite my frequent birding sorties onto it. There are two plastic containers of fresh water, a feeder of cracked sunflower seeds, and a nyger feeder, plus lots of trees very close, so its actually a great place for birds. I put the nest box up five years ago. Outside of a few birds poking their head in, no one occupied it until about 10 days ago when we started being woken by a male Chickadee singing outside our window its FEE BEE song starting about an hour before sunrise. I’ve never experienced such an early bird Chickadee like that in my life. Cardinals yes. Robins yes, but Chickadees? This coincided with a few days of insomnia, so I clearly heard the first birds, and our very big-voiced Chickadee was ahead of the neighbourhood Robin most mornings! Then we caught a glimpse of somebody leaving the nest box about 5 days ago, and we were onto them. They have brought so much soft fluffy stuff  to make what must be the most comfy nest imaginable. . . moss, cotton, cattail fluff, bits of plant flowers, a bit of pink insulation to get the right R factor, and other soft things I couldn’t identify. So, here are a couple of videos, thanks to this trail camera from Nature Canada, that show our early bird Chickadees entering and leaving their cozy home about 30 minutes before sunrise.



The first Warbler is back!

Yellow-rumped WarblerThe first Yellow-rumped Warblers showed up in the trees outside our Gatineau apartment yesterday. It was my wife who spotted it first from our kitchen window with a dramatic “What’s that bird?”  Despite moving to Canada 10 years ago from Brazil, and spending most of her life in the heart of Sao Paulo, one of the biggest cities on earth, she has learned most of the local birds quickly, so I knew from her tone that it was something special. The bold black, yellow and white markings, and especially that bright yellow rump are tell tale of this hearty warbler, usually the first of its family to arrive in south-eastern Canada in the spring. The warbler family comprises an amazingly colourful diversity of small, thin-billed insect-eating birds, most of which migrate from Canada to tropical regions of the Americas where they spend the non-breeding season. The Yellow-rumped Warbler is a bit of an exception, as its migration takes it only as far as the southern USA and Mexico for the winter.  It is one of few warblers that is able to sustain itself in the winter, in part, on Myrtle berries – captured in its previous “official” name, the Myrtle Warbler. Watch for it over the next weeks foraging amongst the flowers of trees and gleaning insects from conifers such as Spruce, Fir and Pine trees.


Spring migration progress – reactivate blog

I get my inspiration every morning from birds – they are the first thing I hear this time of year, when I wake at 5:00 am to a lone Robin or Cardinal song. Sometimes these songs are woven into my dreams, as are the birds. Many times I have caught myself waking up from a ‘birding’ dream in which I just identified a species that was actually singing outside my window. By sunrise, the cacophony of many songbirds is impressive. The Cardinals and Robins are joined by the beautiful two-note “Love You” of the Black-capped Chickadee and the recently returned Song Sparrow’s melodic cantor reminiscent of the opening music from some old TV western of which the name escapes me.
So, this morning I started a new routine. I put on my hiking boots and headed out at 7:00 am for a one hour walk through the nearby subdivision and University campus to a trail on public lands along the Ottawa River. The trail has a great lookout over the river and is a good birding location. There was light but steady rain. No one, not one person but me was out walking. The busy road between my place and the river was essentially deserted with two almost empty buses passing me – the only vehicles observed over the 3 or 4 minutes during which I walked along the sidewalk parallel to the road.
The walk was fruitful and produced many species – 20 in fact including several ducks along the river that were the first of the year for me – Hooded Merganser, American Black Duck, and Northern Pintail amongst the expected Common Goldeneyes, Common Mergansers and Mallards. There were large V formations of Canada Geese overhead – in groups of 50 to 100. The small islands along the river were a buzz with Ring-billed Gulls – flirting with each other or scuffling over the best square metre of territory for a nest site.
In a subdivision before the river, several Starlings were busying themselves from perches high in the urban tree canopy with their favourite imitations of other bird species. Amongst them was the classic “Killdeer” in perfect tone and pitch. This time they didn’t trick me, but I was still in awe of their prowess. These members of the Myna family that were introduced to North America in the late 19th century in New York’s Central Park are an important part of the urban environment of most cities in the Americas. While they are much maligned by some conservationists because of their sometimes-aggressive behaviour and competitive advantages over some native migratory species, I have learned to enjoy their incredible mimicry this time of year. There are always one or two moments when they must snicker to themselves, softly whispering “got him” as I hopelessly scan the sky for a Killdeer, Meadowlark or Pewee, even though these species are not expected for a few weeks.

Two days in May bring waves of birds

Before May is April.  As last told, April started with a 15 kilometre cross-country ski and some nice birds when I returned home.  Two weeks later was Easter weekend.  I skied again that Saturday on a kilometre of icy snow-covered trails deep in Gatineau Park. This was April 15, and winter had not complete relieved her grip on us.   A week later spring took over with a vengeance with a small dose of warm weather and significant rain.  During one of the first days of warmer air, I was fortunate to be working at home and bore witness to at raptor migration of sorts.  Rough-legged Hawk (new for our place) and a few Broad-winged Hawks soared over along with a number of Turkey Vultures.   Later a Merlin made a very brief appearance for me it seemed – I was lucky to have just opened the window to hear its ki ki ki ki ki ki ki call notes.   Then came rain after rain, followed by floods unlike anything anyone who I know had ever experienced in Gatineau.  There were 2 rounds of floods.   The first was less severe, triggered by the snow melt and some rain.  Then over 10 cm of rain fell in a week to engorge the Ottawa and Gatineau Rivers, which spilled their banks, flooding entire neighbourhoods, turning fields into lakes and destroying hundreds of houses.  This wet and cold weather stalled migration.

Remarkably, May 1 arrived before I saw my first warbler species – a first for me in recent memory at least.  The first big push of birds into our region happened on May 2.  I was able to spend nearly 2 hours birding before going into work that Tuesday, and another hour when I got home.  The first warblers were flitting through the branches of my neighbour’s spruces: Nashville, Black and White, Palm and Yellow-rumped.  Even more impressive were the swallows and swifts.  Hundreds of them were milling about in the air over the Ottawa River, no doubt taking full advantage of a first insect emergence.  Raucous flocks of Blue Jays headed north past our place into Gatineau Park.   The first  Purple Finch stopped by to sing its warbling melody.   The 39 species that day, gave me a major morale boost to push towards an even bigger year than last.

Last weekend it rained, and I did not bird as we were filling sandbags at the Campo arena in support of the flood victims. The next big migration moment started on May 12, this past Friday, when an emphatic two syllable bird song jarred me from my sleep.  When I finally realized what it was, I fumbled out of bed, pulling on my pants and a sweatshirt as I stumbled towards the kitchen door.  In the 30 seconds that it took me to get dressed, grab my binoculars and go onto the balcony, the bird had drifted off.   I hoped it would return but it never did, so I will have to settle with only hearing my first Carolina Wren in Gatineau.

Saturday (yesterday) was International Migratory Bird Day, and, as Nature Canada was hosting an event at Brewer Park in Ottawa, I was there early putting on a demonstration of bird banding.   Pretty much the entire day was spent at this event, so there was no time for birding from the balcony.  Sunday (today) was different.

Today was a “B” day for me.  White-crowned sparrows moved in to the neighbourhood en masse over night and the air was filled with their distinctive songs at 6:30 this morning.  This is a great sign of lots so birds from my experience so I got up jazzed!   Despite a late start (due to a late night), the day’s birding was extraordinary.   The neighbour’s spruces bristled with warblers, ruby-crowned Kinglets and Red-breasted Nuthatches.  I observed twelve species of warbler in total, a decent number for many top birding locations, but for the top floor of a house with a balcony in Gatineau . . . .  let’s just say that I’ll take it!  The numbers of individuals was also impressive.  Each species, with only a few exceptions, had several individuals – including Cape May, Blackburnian, Black-throated Green, Northern Parula, Western Palm, Yellow-rumped, Magnolia, and American Redstart.   Over the river, again hundreds of Chimney Swifts and swallows foraged, including many Swifts over our house.   The first Oriole trilled its return and a Rose-breasted Grosbeak’s announced its presence with a cheery song.   My first Eastern Kingbird for our house list ever flew over with its distinctive flight pattern.  By the day’s end, I had racked up 52 species! My year total has already surpassed my first year’s total of 74 five years ago, as I find myself at 79 species already.

Today, i had my camera and snapped a few documentary pictures of some of the species that I can see from the windows and the balcony.  The are: Dark-eyed Junco, Red-winged Blackbird, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, American Goldfinch, White-throated Sparrow, Cardinal, Red-winged Blackbird (female), Red-breasted Nuthatch, Western Palm Warbler, Cape May, Magnolia, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Black and White Warbler, White-crowned Sparrow and Black-throated Green Warbler,







A long cold winter finally recedes on April 1-2 weekend in Gatineau

This winter was up and down and all over the place with copious snow falls, several pulses of milder air, the occasional rain and one or two extended periods of extreme cold.   The net effect on the landscape in our region is that the river was frozen and the land covered with snow – whereas areas a mere 75 km away fields were bare.   The birds get this – so the usual earliest migrants associated with open water – Ring-billed Gulls and Canada Geese, really only showed up in numbers after March 25th.  The classic “winter” finches have been absent- only American Goldfinch has been regular this winter and House Finch showed up in the last two weeks!  Until today, April 2, I had only recorded 25 species from the apartment and balcony for the year.   Balcony birding has really been too cold anyway and all of my records were from inside.


I started this morning (April 2) with a ski on perfect conditions in Gatineau Park.  Minus 3 when I started at 8:30, Plus 3 when I finished at 9:30!

Today the temperature soared to 10 degrees C, so I was out there for a few hours on the balcony when I returned from cross country skiing, and almost matched my year total of 25 species in a few hours of birding.  Twenty three species, including five new ones – the first blackbirds – Common Grackle and Red-winged Blackbird, a Turkey Vulture, a Cooper’s Hawk and the morning started with a serenading Song Sparrow.   Some of these species have been in the city in other areas for the last week or more but have been avoiding my place, at least when I have been at home paying attention!


Our beautiful Goldie just didn’t want to change out of his handsome suite

Despite the relative slow start to the year (not unlike last year which eventually took off, shattering my previous species totals), birding from the balcony has not been without highlights.  Take “Goldie” for example. From November until the end of February, a brilliant golden and black male American Goldfinch periodically visited our feeders.   Not moulting into its drab fall plumage, this bird has been a stunner throughout the winter.   I put this strange phenomenon out to my ornithologist friends to seek an explanation of how or why this would happen and if there are known examples of a species that goes through two distinct moult cycles a year skipping one of them.  No one I spoke with heard of this or had an answer.  Now, after the end of February, we stopped seeing Goldie – there had been periods of a couple weeks when this had happened earlier, so we did not know if the bird had perished or moved on, or perhaps moulted.  In March, particularly towards the end of the month, we started seeing a few males with bright feather patches and one with an almost entire black cap and considerable gold – though not in the immaculate plumage of our Goldie.


Elementary forensic evidence – victim male House Sparrow

The second highlight was a bit of a repeat from last year with a slightly changed cast of characters – at least the predator.   Last year I witnessed a Cooper’s Hawk hunting birds near our place.  It was successful in capturing a male House Sparrow.   This year it was a Sharp-shinned Hawk that captured a male House Sparrow.  It prepared and ate the sparrow on the snow in the neighbour’s yard behind a cedar hedge.   I could sort of watch it pluck feathers from its victim over many minutes (though I was unable to identify the victim), then slowing consume it by tearing shreds of meat off the bird.  Like last year, I was fascinated by the amount of time the hawk took to eat – probably an hour.  Lots to learn from these hawks about not eating too fast.  Afterwards I visited the crime scene and found many body feathers from a male House Sparrow – likely showing off, unaware of the danger lurking on the other side of the hedge and paying a dear price for its vanity.

So my ears are cocked each night as I anticipate the next warm southerly breeze and the new visitors it might bring.