Tony Beck - Photography, Nature and Birding Tours, Local Birding Excursions

Archive for January, 2011

Birding in Eastern Ontario & West Quebec Part One – The Four Seasons

male breeding Northern Parula

male breeding Northern Parula

Gray leafless trees glisten under a clear northern sky. Rising above the southeastern horizon, a big yellow sun transmits an amber glow across delicately textured snow cover. Our trailing footprints circle each shrub, our steps crunching through a thin layer of icy crust – We’re looking and listening for signs of wildlife. From a thick clump of young conifers comes the chatter of angry chickadees. I recognize the sound as one of alarm – the chickadees unleashing their fury upon a potential threat. And, there it is, tucked away inside the cover of dark Jack Pine needles – a Boreal Owl. Casting your eyes on a bird like this can make your day. For some birders, it’s better than winning a lottery. Yes, we’re very lucky here in Eastern Ontario. We’re blessed with a great selection of natural wonders. Some, like the rare Boreal Owl, attract birders here from all around the world.

If a birder glances at a map of North America, Eastern Ontario seems insignificant – a small triangle of land lost in a vast continent, featureless, boring, and ordinary. But, nothing could be further from the truth. Time, geography and the workings of our planet, have created a unique area, full of diverse habitats. We experience four distinct seasons each causing dynamic changes to our rich environment. Primarily flat and productive agricultural land, the St. Lawrence lowlands are covered with ten thousand year old sediment left behind by the ancient Champlain Sea. The region is flanked by the Ottawa and St. Lawrence Rivers, and surrounded by primordial hills and lakes – the Canadian Shield and the Appalachians. Sprinkled throughout are various wetlands, forests, grassland, barrens and urbanized settings. Our waters drain into the Atlantic. However, for many birds traveling between Hudson Bay and the Atlantic, the Ottawa River, and connected lowlands, act like a migratory corridor.

For the birder, this makes for great entertainment, and throughout the entire year. Each season and each habitat comes with a parade of different characters. This blog briefly describes birding trends during Eastern Ontario & West Quebec’s seasons. Look for future blogs describing our best birding hotspots.

WINTER: The Ottawa area can be among the most bitterly cold places in the world. Yet, wildlife is well adapted to our extreme conditions. Several hardy northern birds, at the southern edge of their wintering range, make Eastern Ontario their home for part of the year. Although each winter is different, we consistently find creatures like Iceland Gull, Snowy Owl, Northern Hawk Owl, Bohemian Waxwing, Hoary Redpoll, Pine Grosbeak, and other northern birds. What gives Ottawa an edge is that it provides birders with relatively easy access to view these species.

SPRING: My favourite time of year, this is when our hills, fields and gardens erupt with life. Spring happens gradually, and in two general stages. The first migrants appear around the end of February with the arrival of Horned Larks to our farm fields. Shortly after, typically with warm weather systems, come adult Ring-billed Gulls, various blackbirds and a trickle of waterfowl. By April, we have large numbers migrating through. They pass by quickly, determined to reach their breeding grounds. From late April right through May, we see the next wave of migrants. These include shorebirds, warblers, flycatchers, other insect-eating songbirds and high-Arctic nesters. The last spring migrants are observed during the first week of June. Besides the large flocks of waterfowl, gulls and blackbirds, some of the star attractions include male wood-warblers in breeding plumage, often on territory singing their hearts out. Among them we often see Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Scarlet Tanager and Indigo Bunting. Late spring is very exciting in the Ottawa area. This is the time when birds like Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, Olive-sided Flycatcher, Blackpoll Warbler, Arctic Tern and Brant pass through. With luck, we sometimes find shorebirds along the river or in lagoons.

SUMMER: The most active season for observing behaviour, summer is when most birds have established territories, and breeding activity peaks. For the determined birder, a full morning starts before dawn, sometimes as early as 3:00 or 4:00am. The dawn chorus, especially in extensive, undisturbed areas, rings with an abundance of vocalizations – symphonic, ethereal, and sometimes frantic. Our many wetlands, forests and barrens often reveal wonderful birds. Some of the highlights include Blackburnian Warbler, Cape May Warbler, Northern Parula, Cerulean Warbler, Mourning Warbler, Scarlet Tanager, Grasshopper Sparrow, Clay-coloured Sparrow, Bobolink, Upland Sandpiper, Wilson’s Phalarope, and Least Bittern.

FALL: Fall migration is virtually the reverse of spring. The last to arrive in spring are often the first to leave in fall. Unlike spring migration, many fall migrants are less determined to reach their destination. Some linger for days or weeks. Generally, it is less intense. Regardless, fall migration can be very complex, and produce some extremely intense birding. The entire process of southward bird-movement can last from June through to the end of December. The first fall migrants appear on the shores of rivers & lagoons at the end of June. Typically, these are adult shorebirds finished with the breeding process – Least Sandpiper, Lesser Yellowlegs, Solitary Sandpiper, Semipalmated Plover and others. Throughout July, we see shorebirds, warblers, swallows and flycatchers moving through in small numbers. In August, we see young and adults moving together, sometimes in large flocks. Shorebirds and insect-eating songbirds constitute the bulk of these. The peak of fall migration occurs around the end of August through to the beginning of September. This is also the onset of the next wave of migration – waterfowl, raptors, sparrows, kinglets and Myrtle Warblers. By the end of September, almost all of the insect-eating birds will have passed through. In October, the forests transform from green to red, and bird diversity decreases each day. However, staging waterbird numbers increase, and by the end of November, the first of the over-wintering birds trickle in. By December, most lakes and ponds are frozen, and several over-wintering species become prevalent. Although there are always a few birds just passing through, by the end of December, birders can see a clear pattern for the upcoming winter season.

Boreal Owl

Boreal Owl


Grasshopper Sparrow

Grasshopper Sparrow


Bohemian Waxwing

Bohemian Waxwing

To Feed Or Not To Feed

Male Northern Cardinal © Heather Pickard

Male Northern Cardinal © Heather Pickard

It’s a cold, moist winter dawn in Eastern Ontario. A warm pink light rises from the east masking the bitterly cold air. At the edge of a forest clearing, slender bird-feeders dangle from glazed branches while dozens of small finches nibble niger seed from the feeder’s tiny ports. Nearby, a slab of raw suet, secured to a thick birch trunk constitutes a perch for a famished Hairy Woodpecker. Meanwhile, dozens of Blue Jays descend from the canopy like ornate snowflakes, down to a table covered in corn and millet.
In my early years, winter scenes like this helped kindle a fascination with nature, and all things that lived in the wilderness. Observing nature isn’t always easy. So, placing feeders around the yard allowed me to get close to some of them.

Many of us lure birds to our property with free food. Benevolence is important, but not our only objective. We take great pleasure in being surrounded by a diversity of colourful and animated creatures. The fact that we’re pleasing our avian guests with food is a bonus.
But, some argue that if we make it too easy for them, we reduce their ability to adapt, and survive in harsh conditions where food is less plentiful and temporary. Perhaps this is true in some cases.
Another argument is that we sometimes attract undesirable forms of wildlife to these feeding stations. Some people have waged war against squirrels, raccoons and other rodents. Even pigeons and crows often get a bad rap from property owners. In extreme cases, you might attract an omnivore like a bear. You can say goodbye to your bird-feeders then.

A recent activity that troubles me is the incessant feeding of store-bought mice to wild, over-wintering owls. This is a technique used by photographers to get dramatic photos of a predator catching prey. The owl is located, the mouse released, and as the predator flies in for the kill, all cameras blast away. Unlike nomadic and migratory songbirds, there is a danger when large predators become accustomed to humans. Owls in particular are often misunderstood, symbolic in many cultures as the harbingers of ill-will. To make matters worse, after several straight days of being fed live mice by people, I have watched them fly right up to people, and their cars, expecting food. I have even been followed by some of these owls. In one case, more than a kilometer.

Still, there are many good arguments for maintaining a bird-feeding station.

First, keep in mind that 70 to 90 percent of songbirds don’t survive the first year. “Most birds die through inexperience, for they are constantly at risk from predators, disease, accident and food shortage. Newly independent fledglings are at greatest risk and mortality gradually decreases as the birds become more experienced” (A Dictionary of Birds – Buteo Books – 1985). Once a bird makes it beyond its first year, it has gained much needed skills for survival, and it’s likely to live for several more years. The point here is that a high mortality rate is normal, especially for younger, inexperienced birds.

I also believe most birds do NOT depend on our free handouts. They merely modify their behaviour temporarily to take advantage of our generosity. Throughout migration, birds encounter abundant food sources. They stop to nourish themselves, but their instincts push them to continue migration, leaving behind rich food supplies that might have been adequate for their survival. Around Ottawa, White-throated & White-crowned Sparrows are common during migration, but very rare in winter, even though they can survive harsh conditions where food is abundant.
In winter, many birds traveling through their territory include stops at several food source. If they relied on only one source of natural food, the supply would surely exhaust itself before the end of the season, and the birds’ chance of survival would diminish. Black-capped Chickadees, for example, form small flocks and travel through large territories searching for food. If your bird-feeding station is along their route, they will stop for a visit. If you go on vacation, the birds might continue visiting, but move through your property much faster, spending more time in productive areas.
Many finches and other nomadic species move around constantly during the winter. They’re relatively unaffected by harsh conditions like low temperatures, provided they have lots to eat. They move from one area to the next, capitalizing on their discoveries. For example, a flock of Pine Grosbeaks can finish off a berry-rich mountain ash in a couple of days. Once finished, they move on. These species have successfully behaved like this much longer than humans have been on the planet.
Some species have become more common during winter, in part, because of bird feeders. Since it’s easier for them to “battle the elements” on a full gizzard, they have a greater survival rate. Mourning Doves and Northern Cardinals are two species that have expanded their range northward. Although global warming may be a factor, I’m convinced they are slowly adapting to northern suburbia because of our free handouts. However, we can say the same thing about crows and gulls, two species that rarely come to bird feeders. In most areas, their populations are increasing in winter because they have adapted to our refuse and garbage disposal.
Some birds occasionally wander out of their normal range, or fail to move far enough south in fall migration. These birds eventually become desperate for food since they find themselves in unfamiliar territory or in a habitat that doesn’t suit their normal adaptations. In these cases, when they find a rich food supply (like a bird feeder), their survival might depend on it. If the free handouts suddenly stop, winter’s wrath might take its toll on the misguided, and unprepared bird. A few years ago, my parents had a Myrtle Warbler coming to their feeders. It fed exclusively on suet-cake pieces that were conveniently cut into small chunks for the warbler. Chances are this bird would have perished if it wasn’t for my parents’ diligence and generosity.

But, is this any different than caring for a pet, keeping livestock, or cultivating a beautiful garden?
We all consume nature for our own benefit. When it comes to wild birds, with only a few exceptions, I believe we can feed them without guilt or worry.
Be sensitive, and just enjoy the show.

Snowy Owl

Snowy Owl

White-throated Sparrow © Nina Stavlund

White-throated Sparrow © Nina Stavlund