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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

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

Thank you so much!

Ted

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. .. .

Ted

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.

 

Towhee

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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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Pop the cork!

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

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

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

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

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

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Northern Parula by Ted Cheskey

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

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

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

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

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Cristina Navarro holding her favorite species: a Blue Jay

Dog days of summer

July 16-17, a rare summer weekend with no plans, and a bit of time to spend on the balcony and to recap what has happened with my birding from the balcony project since that extraordinary month of May.  Our balcony is a very comfortable place to hang out in the summer – literally.  We have an excellent hammock that stretches pretty much the length of the balcony, and fortunately Cris and I don’t argue over it, though it is a pretty sweet place to be on a warm day.   The main bird feeder is about a metre above and off to the right of where my head is when I lay in the hammock. Better that it is not direcly above or it would be showered with sunflower chips!  The hummingbird feeder is above the railing hanging from the roof, as are several hanging flowers.  Water in plastic olive containers attached to the wooden supports are positioned at either end of the balcony, and a nyger feeder hangs out over the garden below.

The Japanese elm in front of the balcony grows like a weed and is a sight to behold.  There is constant motion and movement within its foliage, mainly from a family or families of chickadees that pretty much own the place.  They constantly zip in and out from the feeder, the water, and the plants, with the tree as their base.  Bright golden tennis ball-like male American Goldfinches and their more earthy-coloured wives and the teenagers from last year are ever present also.   There are always several goldies, as we call them, squeeking and chattering away and squacking at the peppy chickadees when they face-off at the feeder.  Never far away is a family of White-breasted Nuthatches, Downy Woodpeckers, a Hairy Woodpecker, Cardinals, Chipping Sparrows, Song Sparrows, and House Sparrows.  The hummingbird zipped in today while my eyes were closed.  There was also a visit from an unexpected visitor.  Nothing new for the year, but a surprise nonetheless, a Yellow Warbler.  It looked like a young bird, wandering through the neighbourhood, a sign that the breeding season has come to a close for some species.   The tree and yard is not Yellow Warbler breeding habitat, but we are past breeding season for this species, at least this individual – which serves as a reminder to me that birds wander around after breeding and during migration, and that anything can turn up in that tree!  I just have to keep vigil.

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Goldie photo by Cris Navarro

June and early July were very slow after migration ended, but I applied a new technique, using my excellent scope to watch an open area between two trees over the Ottawa River in hope of adding a few more birds.  While I cannot see the river as it is completely hidden by a combination of a giant apartment building, other buildings and trees, as well as the slope of the land – we are about 25 metres above the river, there is one patch of space where there is a gap in the trees and I can see much closer to the level of the river, perhaps within about 5 metres.  I see birds streaming past through this gap in the last hour or so of the day.   That gap proved to be enough to notice many swallows feeding above the river. When the light was right, even from about a kilometre, I was able to see enough detail to identify two new species for the year – Cliff Swallow and Tree Swallow.   Both nest within a few kilometres so their presence is not a surprise.  All I needed was a strategy I guess.

Another new species was Black-crowned Night Heron.  It nests within a kilometre or two from our place but mostly stays along the river and of course is more active at night.   The first one was spotted passing through the same gap over the river.  A day later I saw two fly past our apartment at about 9 pm.

So that puts me at 91 species for mid July- edging closer to my goal of 100.  It will not be easy to get to 100, but with the knowledge that there are a couple hundred species to the north of us that migrate over or past our place each late summer and fall, I know that I have a shot.  I just have to be in the right place at the right time to detect them.  This will mean putting in observation time later this summer and this fall.

However, those species for which our balcony is home, the chickadees and goldies especially, bring great delight to us every day!