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

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

Happy Holidays

A Very Festive Black-capped Chickadee

A Very Festive Black-capped Chickadee

Gray skies block the warmth of the sun. A parade of large white flakes gently drift to the ground. A soft blanket of fresh snow reveal our steps through the trail. Loud, abrupt calls of curious Northern Ravens interrupt the tranquil silence – their wings whistle as they pass overhead. From the darkness of the forest thickets comes the chatter of resilient & hardy Black-capped Chickadees. A White-tailed Deer snorts a strong breath, alarmed by our approach. We’re cold, tired and all alone. Yet, we can’t imagine a more beautiful place to be – a forest trail in St. Lawrence lowlands of Eastern Ontario. All is well, and life is good. We wish you all Joy, Peace, Love and Happiness in the New Year. Happy Holidays!

Tony & Nina

KENYA SAFARI – NOV 2010

Golden-breasted Starling

Golden-breasted Starling

Whew… I’ve just returned from a most successful 25-day “familiarization” tour of Kenya! A long flight home provided ample time to reflect on the experience. And, I can happily report that this ranks as one of the most awesome tours I’ve ever participated in.
Filled with joy, colour, animation, drama – the natural wonders were endless, and the diversity was astonishing.

We tallied 658 species of birds and 72 species of mammals.
The wildlife photo-opportunities were many, often under ideal light conditions (I’m going to be very busy editing for a while).

Sadly, there’s not enough room in this blog-entry to list all the highlights. However, a few stand out, include the following:
* Witnessing an adult Peregrine Falcon, with lightning speed & power, pluck a Yellow-necked Spurfowl off our dusty open trail.
* Studying a lanky Cheetah as it patiently stalked a herd of Thomson’s Gazelle feeding in the Amboseli grasslands.
* Making eye contact with a huge Savannah Elephant as it slowly waltzed by us through the Mara Grasslands. We had a similar close-encounter later in the Tsavo Scrublands.
* Watching two muscular  Savannah Monitor Lizards wrestling each other like athletes in a tournament – the event was likely the result of a territorial dispute.
* Spying on a Hartlaub’s Bustard as it emitted a bittern-like sound – expanding it’s thin neck like a balloon, then after a couple of pops releasing a long, drawn-out moaning sound.
* Counting more than 120,000 Lesser Flamingos in scattered concentrations around Lake Bogoria and Lake Nakuru. On one occasion, being awestruck by the flurry of pink wings as a flock escapes a marauding Spotted Hyena.
* Enjoying the candid views of a beautiful Lilac-breasted Roller playfully spoil its colour with a lengthy dust bath in the red sands of the Tsavo Plains.
* Noting a pair of aptly named Black-backed Puffbirds “puffing” out their back feathers during a territorial display – they looked like large cotton balls with wings.
* Relaxing to the melodic dawn chorus of the African wilderness – the symphony of sounds sometimes included the accomplished voices of Eastern Black-headed Orioles and White-browed Scrub-Robins – so wonderfully tropical.
* Watching a pair of Green Wood-hoopoes rush around the periphery of the forest, making comical nasal sounds as they engage in a hurried, yet amorous courtship duet.
* Thrilling at the elaborate courtship dance of three Grey-crowned Cranes – wings fanned out, bouncing like giant butterflies with occasional great bounding leaps into the sky.
* Being inspired by graceful white morph African Paradise Flycatchers – their long flag-like tails flapping behind them as they float, dart and pirouette through the trees, trying to catch insects.
* Sharing breakfast with a young male Vervet Monkey – it looked at me with big puppy dog eyes while it pulled bread from my tight grip using its tiny, gentle yet dextrous fingers.
* Observing a total of 61 different species of raptors (including Pearl-spotted Owlet, Imperial Eagle, Verreaux’s Eagle and Pygmy Falcon) – all majestic and cool.
* Seeing 44 different species of shorebird (including Heuglin’s Courser, Blacksmith Lapwing, Broad-billed Sandpiper, Terek Sandpiper and Bar-tailed Godwit). Some were long-distance migrants, many in subtle winter plumage – with my bare feet submerged in the warm estuary mud, I could study this group for days on end.
* Some of the most attractive birds of the trip include Great Blue Turaco, Malachite Kingfisher, Lialac-breasted Roller, Peter’s Twinspot and Northern Carmine Bee-eater – no illustration will ever do them justice.
* And, I now have a new all-time favourite bird, a new champion of champions – the extremely showy Golden-breasted Starling – complete with a long tail, bright white eyes and a kaleidoscope of iridescent colours.

We were blessed with great weather, enjoying perfectly comfortable conditions. Although coastal regions were hot, they were managed well.
The people of Kenya are friendly. And, we felt completely safe during all parts of our itinerary.
Accommodations were excellent throughout.
The food was well-prepared and delicious.
Our local guide, Ben Mugambi, took excellent care of us. He is sensitive to customer needs, and has an uncanny awareness of all forms of East African wildlife.

There were plenty more amazing experiences on this Kenyan adventure.
Stay tuned for more in future blogs.

Northern Carmine Bee-eater

Northern Carmine Bee-eater

Imperial Eagle

Imperial Eagle

Spotted Hyena

Spotted Hyena

Hartlaub's Bustard

Hartlaub's Bustard

Tsavo Savannah Elephant

Tsavo Savannah Elephant

POST CARDS FROM KENYA

Superb Starling

Superb Starling

A narrow brook gently cascades along a garden trail, lilac-coloured blooms ornament the prominent Jacaranda trees. A mixed flock of iridescent sunbirds with long curved bills and tail streamers – flashes of emerald, bronze, amethyst and scarlet, each one chattering as they probe the blossoms for nectar. African Mourning Doves, perch high in the canopy singing the words “Drink Lager, Drink Lager…” Montane Wagtails, tiny, slender, black & white – they pump their tails as they follow us along the trail. Meanwhile enormous Crowned Hornbills, with their brilliant red toucan-like bills, and long tails, fly from tree-to-tree. Amongst them, a single Hartlaub’s Turaco, a flamboyant bird with a bushy crest, and crimson wings. Above all the activity, a Violet-backed Starling emerges from the canopy, its upper side shining with a rich magenta gloss – a colour rarely seen in the world of birds. The dawn chorus rings like a well-orchestrated symphony – sweet and melodic. A quick walk around the gardens reveals about 30 species of birds – all before a tasty cup of fresh Kenyan coffee and a plate of juicy fresh fruit.

This begins a typical day of birding in Kenya.

Fourteen days into our journey, and our group has tallied more than 500 species of birds and 60 species of mammals.

Equatorial regions provide the greatest diversity of species in the world, and Kenya is a perfect example of this. A country the size of New York State, about 1200 different birds have been recorded here – more than a tenth of the world’s total. With many different habitats, at different elevations, we discover a wonderful world of immense natural colour, drama and beauty. So far, our group has only visited areas north and west of Nairobi. Traveling around Mount Kenya, through the Rift Valley, down to Lake Victoria and into the Masi Mara, we go through many different habitats exploring lush montane forest, moorland, brushland, thorn scrub, lakeshore, various grasslands and wetlands – they contain the widest variety of life-forms I’ve ever experienced, much of it highly visible and easily photographed.

Elephants, Cheetahs, Giraffes, Lions, Monkeys, Zebras, Hippos… But, none match the kaleidoscopic colour of the birds. We’ve marveled at the likes of Lilac-breasted Roller, Superb Starling, Cinnamon-chested Bee-Eater, Malachite Kingfisher and Red-billed Firefinch. We’ve seen the abundant wildlife surrounding the shores of Lake Nakuru and Lake Bagoria, with its endless flocks of flashy pink Lesser Flamingos – more than 120,000 lining the shore. A morning hike through Kakamega Forest produces a new symphony of sounds, and 60 new species for the trip. Driving through the arid savannah grasslands of the Masi Mara, open and vast, sprinkled with the occasional dominant BalanitesTree. We’re surrounded by large herds of big mammals like Burchell’s Zebra, Impala, Wildebeast and Cape Buffalo – an abundance of life, thrilling, beautiful and photogenic – a childhood dream-come-true.

And, we’re only half way through the itinerary. What great adventures await in the days ahead? Stay tuned.

male Black-bellied Sunbird

male Black-bellied Sunbird

Lilac-breasted Roller

Lilac-breasted Roller


Lesser Flamingos

Lesser Flamingos


Cinnamon-chested Bee-eater

Cinnamon-chested Bee-eater

Hand-feeding The Birds

My First Hand-fed Downy Woodpecker - Photo courtesy of Nina Stavlund

My First Hand-fed Downy Woodpecker - Photo courtesy of Nina Stavlund

Fresh-fallen snow shrouds the surrounding conifers, a distant raven’s croak disturbs the calm air as I approach the forest trail. I hear the chatter of chickadees emerging from the thickets. I dig deep into my jacket pocket, pull out a fistful of crushed walnuts, hold out my offering, and they arrive. Black-capped Chickadees, Red-breasted Nuthatches, and even a Downy Woodpecker, hopping onto my hand, grabbing a chunk, then flying away. One after another, often without hesitation, and sometimes several at a time, they come to you like an old friend.

So, what is it about feeding a bird from your hand? Why do so many people, from all age groups, find this so delightful?
I’ve seen many smiles, heard much laughter, when a chickadee alights onto a person’s fingers. I see all their cares and troubles vanish, replaced by joy and fulfillment. It’s a connection with nature, with the world around us. It’s the power of dispelling the fear of an innocent creature, to be accepted by something that normally fears us. Whatever it is, for some it has a lasting and profoundly positive effect – good, healthy therapy for the soul.

Here in Ottawa, we have several natural areas where the birds have become accustomed to free handouts. Some people have even trained the birds in their own back yard to come to the hand. Black-capped Chickadees are the easiest to train. In time, Red-breasted Nuthatch gets in on the act. Next to follow is the White-breasted Nuthatch. I’ve even had Downy Woodpecker, Pine Siskin, and Common Redpoll come to my hand. No doubt, they learned this from the nearby chickadees. Judging by their bold assertiveness, I suspect that some of our local Blue Jays will eventually do the same.

In the book “Hand-feeding Backyard Birds” by Hugh Wiberg, walnuts are a favourite. Pecans, cashews, hulled sunflower and peanuts are also popular menu items.

Training these birds often requires time, patience and a slow, methodical determination. You can’t force them to accept your hand. They are in complete control. But, you have to give the birds some credit. They’re resourceful enough to learn you mean them no harm. Their reward is nutritious food. Ours is a few moments of bonding with nature.

Nina Stavlund Photographing the Chickadees

Nina Stavlund Photographing the Chickadees

Black-capped Chickadees are amongst the easiest birds to hand feed.

Black-capped Chickadees are amongst the easiest birds to hand feed.

Ottawa River at Dusk – October 29, 2010 (Ontario Field Ornithologists Field Trip)

Snow Bunting at Dick Bell Park Boat Launch, October 29, 2010

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.

Bohemian Waxwing

Bohemian Waxwing

Rare Bird Fever

Golden-crowned Sparrow

Golden-crowned Sparrow

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.

Gray Jay

Gray Jay

fourteen Cattle Egrets off Richmond Road, south of Kanata

fourteen Cattle Egrets off Richmond Road, south of Kanata

one of fourteen Cattle Egrets seen in October

one of fourteen Cattle Egrets seen in October

Beginning Birdwatching

Northern Raven chasing light morph Rough-legged Hawk

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?
YES! 
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!

Blue Jay

Blue Jay

Gatineau Birding – October 9, 2010

American Robin

American Robin

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.

FrostedRedOakLeaves001