Snow Bunting at Dick Bell Park Boat Launch, October 29, 2010
(This blog entry is copied in part from my report to ontbirds listserv – Oct. 29, 2010)
(Snow Bunting Photo © Nina Stavlund)
Brisk 20 kilometre winds from the northwest couldn’t stop 12 hardy birders from enjoying an afternoon of birding along the Ottawa River. I was leading them on an Ontario Field Ornithologists’ evening excursion – Ottawa River at Dusk. Seven degree Celsius temperatures, and a nasty wind chill, made this feel more like a Christmas Bird Count – NOT the southern “Cave Swallow” weather we were hoping for.
We started at Andrew Haydon Park East moving quickly to the western side, thus avoiding a group of windsurfers. The park seemed surprisingly slow until we heard Bohemian Waxwings flying overhead. We watched the flock of about 80 birds disappear over a row of spruce. The choppy river whitecaps made it difficult to observe things on the water. However, 3 American Coots, still uncommon in these parts, provided some excitement.
Anticipating northern birds, we ventured toward Dick Bell Park. As we started along the breakwater, seven Snow Buntings landed among the nearby rocks giving everyone excellent views. A mixed flock of Mallards and Pintails flew by. An American Pipit flew overhead shortly after. Several more-common species were also observed here. And, upon our return, a very tame Snow Bunting posed for photos.
Our next stop was Shirley’s Bay where we observed at least 7 Red-necked Grebes, and one Horned Grebe. A young light morph Rough-legged Hawk put in a great performance as it flew by the boat launch. At the Hilde Road feeders, we had 2 male Northern Cardinals, and a host of several other common species. The highlight was a cooperative adult Northern Shrike.
With winds persisting, we headed back to Andrew Haydon Park. Those that stuck around to the end enjoyed the spectacle of a few thousand Canada Geese coming in to their nightly roost.
Compared to years past, the bird diversity and overall numbers are low along this part of the river. The high winds and low temperatures also made for difficult birding. Regardless, we had a few highlights, some participants got life-birds, and we had a lot of fun.
The phone rings… an ecstatic voice on the other end exclaims “fourteen Cattle Egrets in the fields off Richmond Road!” It’s another alert being reported through the local birder’s Rare-Bird-Alert network ! Although the Cattle Egret is rapidly expanding its range across the world, it’s still a rare sight to see one in Ottawa. But, to see fourteen… now that’s absolutely phenomenal!
October 2010 will go down as one of Ottawa’s best months for rarities. The excitement is feverish as birders anticipate finding their own rarities. Good numbers of Gray Jay are being reported from all corners of the Ottawa area. Will these birds settle in for the winter? Many local birders hope so. A Northern Wheatear poses for a photographer who is unaware of its rarity. The bird moves on before the word gets out – a birder’s nightmare.
Then there are those genuine rarities – the ones that get birders excited all across the province. Three potential first-records for Ottawa were reported in less than a week – Golden-crowned Sparrow from the other side of the continental divide, Great Cormorant from the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and McCown’s Longspur from the Prairie Grasslands. Typically migrating south, these birds have flown off course, and into a region where they’re not expected. To the birdwatcher, seeing them amounts to tremendous joy. Like a collector of sightings, the birder adds the species to their list of birds seen in the Ottawa area. Being lucky enough to actually see any of these treasures is like finding a precious gem and placing it into a glass case, beside your other gems.
It may only be a list. But the experience has potential to be profoundly moving. There’s still a few days left in the month. Can we find another rare bird?
* Special thanks to Giovanni Pari for his wonderful hospitality after discovering the Golden-crowned Sparrow.
* Thanks to Gary Fairhead for the Northern Wheatear record (even if we didn’t get to see it).
* A very special thanks to John Dubois for calling me about the McCown’s Longspur – John, you’re awesome (even though we couldn’t re-locate the longspur)!
* Special thanks to Bob Cermak for always having his cell phone ready, and calling about the Great Cormorant & Cattle Egrets.
* Thanks to Bernie Ladouceur and Mike Tate for the Great Cormorant (I’m still intensely trying to re-locate this one).
* And, thanks to Phil Wright for alerting us about the Cattle Egrets.
fourteen Cattle Egrets off Richmond Road, south of Kanata
one of fourteen Cattle Egrets seen in October
Northern Raven chasing light morph Rough-legged Hawk
So, you want to start birding?
You’ve got Blue Jays, Cardinals, Black-capped Chickadees and White-crowned Sparrows visiting your back yard – little treasures brightening the day as they frolic through your garden. But, where are all those other birds I see in books, TV, and postage stamps? Do I have to be a part of David Attenborough’s camera crew to see those?
If you only birdwatch from your back-yard, then you’ll only observe a limited number of species, typically ones that prefer suburban habitats.
If you’d like to enter an entirely new world of birds then you’ll need to travel beyond the neighbourhood. Many species prefer different habitats to urban settings. And, each different habitat attracts different species. In order to see great diversity, you’ll have to visit as many different environments as possible.
Most communities have set aside greenspace for recreational use – walking trails through forests, boardwalks through wetlands, even grassland trails and open space along water edges… There’s likely several of these within proximity of your home. And, then there are the more elaborate parklands, often federally funded and organized. Take advantage of these whenever you can.
But, where do you start?
Try Google first. The internet is full of good information about where to find birds in your area.
Use the word “birds” plus the name of your town, city or neighbourhood. Enter them into the search engine and see what comes up. You might find volumes of information there.
Next, make sure you have a good set of binoculars (click here to read my blog entry about selecting binoculars for birding: http://tonybeck.ca/blog/2010/02/19/binoculars-for-birding/ ).
You’ll also want a good reference book to check your sightings.
The “field guides” I recommend the most for North America are as follows:
1) National Geographic Field Guide to Birds of North America http://shop.nationalgeographic.com/ngs/browse/productDetail.jsp?productId=55314C&code=NG90300
2) National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern North America http://shop.nationalgeographic.com/ngs/browse/productDetail.jsp?productId=6200330&categoryId=A002
3) National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of Western North America http://shop.nationalgeographic.com/ngs/browse/productDetail.jsp?productId=6200331&code=NG90300
4) The Sibley Guide to Birds http://www.sibleyguides.com/about/the-sibley-guide-to-birds/
5) The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America http://www.sibleyguides.com/about/the-sibley-field-guide-to-birds-of-eastern-north-america/
6) The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America http://www.sibleyguides.com/about/the-sibley-field-guide-to-birds-of-western-north-america/
You now own good binoculars, a couple of excellent field guides, and you’re keen to observe new species. Is there a way to observe more effectively and efficiently?
Although each of us observes birds differently, there is a general, systematic approach to bird-identification.
Most times, all we need is a quick glimpse of something and we know what it is. A bold colour, a certain shape… our mind reacts instantaneously to what we see. And, the more we observe, the quicker we’re able to react.
However, there are other times we need to think carefully before making an identification – the bird might not be familiar, or the bird is not clearly in view.
Here are some of the steps to follow:
* SIZE – compare the size of your bird to other birds you’re familiar with. Common species like sparrows, crows and geese all offer a reference in which to compare a bird you’re unfamiliar with.
* SHAPE – This is critical! Often this is the easiest way to recognize differences between similar species. How long is that beak? How short is the tail? How plump is that bird? Is the tail forked or flat? Is the head round or square? What do the legs look like? What shape are those wings? Even when you can’t see colour or plumage detail, subtle details of shape can stand out.
* BOLD CHARACTER – When we observe birds, some characters are obvious – bold colour, distinctive shapes, bold contrasting marks… Some species have unique characters that stand out. Once you’ve recognized them, your identification process need go no further.
* HABITAT – Every species has adapted to a specific set of conditions. In order to survive, each species needs to associate itself with the environment it’s best adapted to. Otherwise, it has to re-adapt, and that requires effort and energy.
For example: a Wood Thrush is comfortable in a deciduous woodland. It will have trouble surviving in a wetland, or urban environment – habitats they’re not adapted to. A Bobolink requires grassland to breed, and find food. It can’t find what it needs in a forest or swamp. If you know which environment the species prefers, or which species you’re likely to find in the habitat you’re exploring, you are better prepared to make correct bird identifications.
* TIME-OF-YEAR – Birds have wings, and can travel great distances. Birds sometimes breed in different places to where they spend the non-breeding season. Understanding this dynamic will help you identify species. A Chipping Sparrow looks a lot like an American Tree Sparrow. However, an American Tree Sparrow has never bred in my home-patch while the Chipping Sparrow is a common nester. The reverse is also true – A Chipping Sparrow is rare in winter while the American Tree Sparrow is common. Some species are common as passage migrants (spring and/or fall) while some species are here only in the summer . Others are here all year. Knowing what time of year each species is present in your area will greatly enhance your ability to make correct identifications.
* BEHAVIOUR – As unique as a bird’s appearance is the way it behaves. Each species moves in a way that can sometimes assist in revealing its identity. Does it pump its tail? Does it bob its head? How does the bird fly? Does it fly straight, or does it undulate in a rhythmic pattern? How deep are its wing beats? How does it forage for food? On the ground, does it hop or walk? How does it perch – vertical or horizontal? Does it swim, soar, run, swoop, flap, glide… all these things can help in determining its identity.
* SOUND – every species has its own unique language. Some species have a wide variety of sounds it makes. Many have elaborate vocalizations during courtship. Some have simple call notes while others make sounds with body parts. Recognizing the language of each species will enhance your birdwatching experience greatly.
* PLUMAGE DETAIL – finally – after sorting through all the above items, you need to study plumage detail. This is when you need to know the birds “topography” – like studying a map of the bird. You can start by looking at the bird’s head, working your way down the back, side, front, wings, rump, legs then tail… constantly noting colour, pattern, shape, or any other subtle characters. With difficult bird-identification challenges, this is the only way to make a correct bird-identification.
Now you have it… you’re a birdwatcher. The exciting world of birds awaits you. There is adventure around every corner!
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A cool breeze gently cascades from the hills. Clean northern air brings a frosty bite below pastel blue skies. Hundreds of migrating American Robins pour from the sky, into the berry-rich scrub, as if the heavens opened releasing buckets of birds, all of them chattering, a few singing a muffled version of their spring song. Fall colours paint the Canadian Shield forest. Gold, ruby, emerald and bronze foliage begin to reveal the emerging gray tree bark where the leaves have already fallen. It’s an early October dawn as five birders gather in a Gatineau Park parking lot – Nina Stavlund, Lene Kollgard, Roger & Ruth Cobbledick and myself. The hike begins.
Below the Gatineau Escarpment at the southern edge of the park, we start along a short loop through buckthorn, crabapple and grassy field. Many of the trees ornamented with migrating birds, mostly robins, accompanied by several White-throated Sparrows, a few Black-capped Chickadees, Hermit Thrushes, and Blue-headed Vireos. It’s the second wave of fall’s migrating birds – typically hardy creatures feasting on berries and seeds. We don’t expect the insect-eaters any more. They’ve already passed through in August and September. Gone are all the swallows, flycatchers and warblers. Only a sprinkling of hardy Myrtle Warblers remain. The prize along the trail was two encounters with Red Fox Sparrows – a beautiful rusty -red sparrow, large and uncommon in these parts.
With late morning visitors streaming into the park, we decided to venture west, away from the city, into more remote areas along the escarpment. Our next stop – Luskville Falls, a trail network in the hills, adjacent to open agricultural land. Less productive than the dawn, we still encountered an Eastern Phoebe, a Winter Wren, small numbers of Golden-crowned Kinglets and Dark-eyed Juncos, all among the beautiful trail colours. Upon returning to the parking lot, we watched dozens of Turkey Vultures passing overhead – an obvious migratory movement. Before reaching the highway, we found two American Pipits resting on a utility wire, and an American Kestrel hunting over a farm field.
After a short, yet refreshing, stop in the village of Eardley we headed back into the park, this time north, up the Eardley-Masham Road. Our ascension up the escarpment was stopped when we noticed several birds soaring overhead – Turkey Vultures, Red-tailed Hawks and Northern Ravens. Further on a young Bald Eagle joined the mix. Here we found the highlight of the day – a Black-backed Woodpecker!
We returned to the lowlands, where we were treated to a small flock of Eastern Bluebirds. Shortly after, a Ruffed Grouse strutted across the road, a fitting end to an awesome day of fall birding.