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.