Despite a very busy work week of organizing Nature Canada’s Bird Day event in Ottawa, this second week of May lived up to its reputation as rich in bird species, and a key one for building the yard list. Thursday, the weather sweetened – it has been a colder than normal spring with much wind, that likely has slowed the migration, so a couple of days pushing the high teens and low 20s were very welcome to us and the birds. As they always do, they took advantage of favourable winds and moved in (while others moved out). It was a blue Thursday for me. The dark, small bird that moved with a flock of Goldfinches turned out to be an Indigo Bunting, a first for the yard list! A short while later, still before going to work in the morning, another bluish-bird turned up in the same tree, a gorgeous male Black-throated Blue Warbler.
Friday was crazy busy at work, but an hour of birding in the morning was enough to add a number of new species that sailed in on the southerlies – Baltimore Oriole, Least Flycatcher, American Redstart and Chestnut-sided Warbler. At the same time, some of the wonderfully vocal White-crowned Sparrows and two White-throated Sparrows were ever-present at Pierre’s feeder below.
Saturday was the craziest day, leaving the house at 6:15 to head over to Brewer Park. That meant about 10 minutes to bird before leaving – and it paid off in a strangely poetic way. On the west side of the house, a Tennessee Warbler belted out its song for all the neighbourhood to hear. On the east side of the house, at the same time, a Nashville Warbler sang repeatedly, perhaps with even more of a country twang. Apparently, both the Nashville Warbler and the Tennessee Warbler were named from specimens collected by American Ornithologist Alexander Wilson on the banks of the Cumberland River near Nashville Tennessee, while the birds were on migration in 1811. Ironically, neither species breeds, nor winters anywhere near Nashville Tennessee, but migrates through the area in spring and fall. I could imagine a situation in another dimension of space time in which the two species could have been named the “Gatineau Warbler” and the “Outaouais Warbler” by me.
I started Sunday morning at a Purple Martin colony, helping recover small Global positioning tracking devices from a couple of birds at the Nepean Sailing Club. When I returned home at 8:00 am, I was ready to spend several hours birding from the balcony (inside actually as it was freezing cold and windy outside). And the birding was good! The warblers showed up – with a parade of striking species working the spruce trees nearby. Cape May, Yellow, Black-throated Green, and Blackburnian moved back and forth between the tall trees. While enjoying them, my ears detected a new species for the yard, a Rough-winged Swallow, which zipped over the forest trees and then roof above my head. A little later, a Barn Swallow winged past, more or less following the road into Gatineau Park. I stopped birding early afternoon, when sleep caught up to me. However, my list has jumped over just a few days to 74 species!. This is looking like a good year, and here are some of the stars so far from the this past week.
Well, last year I took a break from listing birds from our apartment. 2014 was the last big year and I realize that I had not finished my account for the one or two followers that might be interested in my story. Well, in the end there were 95 species on my house list by December 31, 2014. That will be tough to match for our place for many reasons.
The on-line bird listing program eBird has its advantages and disadvantages. I am an eBird user and I have been using the yard list function for a few years now. That has made me lazy for keeping the blog, for with that yardlist function one can see hundreds of year listers and follow their lists. Also work has gobbled up more and more of my time. While I love my work, there is a price to pay when you bring it home regularly – or you are not at home because of it. Last year we were in Europe in late April and May, pretty much kiboshing any potential for a big year. Work-related travel in June and July sapped my enthusiasm, but when January 1st, 2016 rolled around, I realized how enjoyable birding from the balcony is and how much I had missed it. It is also fun to share, and though I am slow at sharing this year, the great spring energy in the air today has motivated me. There are many amazing things that deserve sharing also – the mysterious disappearance of Blue Jays in the winter, the spectacular arrival of the Pine Siskins and Redpolls, hand feeding Siskins through the window, the return of the White-throated Sparrows, and so on.. Back in January, Cris and I were fortunate to watch a tremendous drama unfold just off the balcony. An adult Cooper’s Hawk was perched attentively on a neighbourhood tree. We watched it for over an hour and it barely budged. Cris was worried that it had its eye on our feeders. Finally it shifted position and flew to a fence, where it teetered momentarily before launching itself into a glide and disappearing behind the dense cedar hedge. Then nothing – no movement, no visual contact. We were curious. Suddenly a commotion and then a burst of House Sparrows exploded from the near side of the hedge. Moments later the predator glided back into view, returning to its fence perch, but with a male house sparrow securely gripped in a talon. We watched with fascination as it plucked feathers and proceeded to slowly devour its prey over dozens of minutes. During this time a neighbour, oblivous to the drama, moved within 10 metres of the bird, clearing snow, but the hawk remained concentrated on eating and ignored the threat. Finally, after at least 30 minutes it flew off, leaving just a few feathers behind. So birding from the balcony is far more than listing!
But the list is building, and on this 7th day of May, with virtually no Warblers yet in the hood, I have reached 50 species, Chimney Swift and White-crowned Sparrows being the latest additions. Last weekend, a surprise Lincoln’s Sparrow sang from the park across the road. The challenge and delight never ends when I bird from the balcony.
I have slowly added a few species in the past month, as birds start moving again. Most recently a few Purple Martins, a species that I now know with greater intimacy, have taken to foraging in the airspace over our place. They are wonderful birds and truly a delight to hear chattering away to each other. A week or more ago I heard a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker calling from the forest about 200 metres up Boucherville just before it ends in Gatineau Park while returning from a run. I quickly finished my run, ran upstairs, opened the window facing the street, and strained my ears the direction of the bird . . . and voila, I heard its distinctive voice. Finally, just like magic, as I was about to tell Cris while we were having dinner on the balcony about my expectation to observe a Black-crowned Night Heron any day (while I am not making this up, I realize that I must sound like a very boring husband), a Night Heron flew past. Probably five seconds later and the words would have started flowing. Experienced birders know that this sort of thing happens, but it always feels like magic, and likely looks like magic when the words actually do come out before the bird flies past!
So that puts me at 87 species from our place so far in 2014, two more that the entire 2013 campaign, and 3 more than 2012. I am into new territory and have 5 months to get to my ultimate goal – 100 species in one calendar year from our second floor apartment in Gatineau Quebec!
While my World Cup predictions may have been off, I hink that this one is attainable.
OK, from a birding persective (restricted to observing birds from inside our apartment or on the balcony), March sucked, and April was not much better. Well, it has been the coldest, and one of the snowiest winters in southern Canada in history. Hell, there were still patches of snow in Gatineau Park in early May. There is still 10% ice cover in parts of Georgian Bay! In fact, there is the pile of snow about knee high, on the bike path behind parliament. It was really a pile of compressed snow, ice and dirt from a snow plough, but the fact that it is still around on May 13 says it all.
So, how has May been for birds in the National Capital Region, as us Gatineau people, or Gatinois sometimes call our town? Well, it has still been below normal cool, but there was a spurt of heat this past Friday that lasted a couple days, faded, and is back today. The heat seeped in last Wednesday night and gradually over Thursday and Friday. It brought rain, lots of it on Friday. It also brought birds. Brought them here and brought them down. Migration stopped due to the low pressure, unstable air and rain. Stopped right over us it seems. Thursday I heard my first White-crowned Sparrow in a couple years (from our place). And flitting around in Jacques’ tall spruce trees was a small group of Nashville Warblers. Six days later the same birds are still here. Unstable weather is holding them back. But Saturday, overcast but warm, the birds burst through the invisible wall that was holding them back, and we were flooded with migrants of all colours and shapes. How superbly appropriate could that be on the “official” International Migratory Bird Day, World Migratory Bird Day, Grand Defi QuebecOiseaux. No one could have planned this better.
I had decided some time ago that I would spend Saturday sequestered in our apartment, only permitted to go onto the balcony, but doing what I love . . . birding! I woke around 5:30 to an amazing White-crowned Sparrow chorus. 5 1/2 hours later (11 am) I was at 40 species, and finished the day with 46. Eleven species of warbler – Ovenbird, Black and White, Nashvilles (who keep busy eating something in the Japanese Elms just off our balcony), Redstarts, Cape Mays (who love the neighbour’s Spruce Trees!), Yellow, Chestnut-sided, Palm, Pine, Yellow-rumped and Black-throated Green. Three orioles made a quick visit to the Elms. A male Rose-breasted Grosbeak spent over an hour a the base of Pierre’s feeder, directly below our East window. It was a most amazing day, without putting a foot on the actual ground! Cris was wonderful, and let me do my thing.
The good tidings continued on Sunday with a Cliff Swallow (new for the balcony). Monday morning was not a deary return to work day because it started with 3 raucous Gray Catbirds landing in the Elms at 6 am, followed by a brief visit from a male Indigo Bunting. Across the street in Gatineau Park, a Northern Parula sang its buzzy song. Tuesday, was an off day, but this morning, I noticed small birds flitting in Jacques’ spruces again. My binoculars revealed two gorgeous Cape May Warblers, but there was more. A flash of orange . . . male Blackburnian. The two similarly drab warblers, but one with a yellow bum (undertail coverts) and the other without – Orange-crowned Warbler and Tennessee Warbler. This lands me at 74 species on May 14, far beyond where I was at this time last year. I hope that by the time I leave for the Bruce and birdathon, I will be at 80. I started the month with 47 species and I have already observed 57 species in the first 14 days! This is looking like a great year for birding from the balcony!
The other thing that makes me happy is the Montreal Canadians! Courageous series against the tough Bruins, and our Habs won in 7 tough games. Go Habs Go!
I’ve added 21 species to the year list from my residence this April, giving me 43 species as of April 27. As good as that might sound, it is far behind last year’s April effort that resulted in 30 new species. Oh the joys of eBird where one can compare data sets and do marvelous things with them at the click of a key. Perhaps it is better not to know.
This spring has been an odd one. Today, we went walking in the south end of Gatineau Park, and encountered patches of snow on the north facing slopes. Thankfully, there were also clumps of nearly glowing white, freshly opened Hepatica (Hepatica acutiloba) flowers dotting the otherwise mottled greys, browns and green dappled forest floor, making my heart swoon. The last vestiges of the long winter are rapidly fading, and the Hepatica flowers announce the spring season – at last! Even as a hard-core winter enthusiast, I must admit that I am tired of winter and wanting for the sensual pleasure that spring warmth brings.
When I look at that list of birds from last year, I realize that I’ve missed some, including the pulse of Sapsuckers that passed through about a week ago. My April list of 21 has been rather pedestrian, with only one really unexpected species . . . a Trumpeter Swan. This was an odd one for me, as I heard it from the east window. I frantically looked around, but, at the best of times, I can only see a relatively small fraction of the sky, and this bird I did not see. But I did hear it, which, as you can imagine, is a defining moment with this particular species. As odd as a Trumpeter Swam might seem, these birds do move around, and its call is truly unmistakable. I was also happy to observe a Hermit Thrush, skulking along the brushy edge of vegetation across the street where the strip of Gatineau Park begins. Ruby-crowned Kinglets, also one of my favourite species, have been bursting with song for nearly 10 days, making regular stops in the Japanese Elm. A few Golden-crowned Kinglets have been amongst the more common Rubies in our neighbourhood. Many of these species were observed on April 19, which so far, has been my big day of this bird year with ten new species.
Away from the house, my family and I did join a gaggle of observers, families, photographers and curious onlookers at the Experimental Farm in Ottawa today to finally get a look at one of the Snowy Owls that is clearly mesmerizing many onlookers. The one we saw appeared to be alone today, no sign of its four or five friends, spotted there as recently as a day or two ago.
Up early tomorrow to try to add to my list before having to turn the calendar to May, the month that will determine my big year.
One full day to April 1, and outside it looks like mid-February. Still about a metre of snow in the yards and in the bush. On Friday I visited Mike Burrell’s house just north of Kingston. It was spring there. Turkey Vultures over highway 15, Grackles and Red-winged Blackbirds at his feeder, even a Song Sparrow. Though Gatineau is a three or four hours flight for birds, I don’t expect to see them for a while. However, today I did have a new species for the year, only my forth for March and the 22nd in 2014, but an unexpected delight. One that brings childhood memories rushing back, when I, as a child growing up in Milton, was responsible for maintaining our bird feeder in the front yard. It was in a flowering crab tree that my brother still has growing there. The tree would be full of blossoms in the spring and fruit in the fall. I imagine that my mother loved that tree, though her cancer didn’t allow her to stay around long to enjoy it. The berries were favoured by Evening Grosbreaks, that would descend like the plague on the tree, the most beautiful variety of plague imaginable with their cartoon “Boston Bruin” colours, and leave a day later with the ground beneath slick and red with juicy pulp. Messy eaters those Grosbeaks. I loved them, but they were not my favourite bird back then. It was the Purple Finch. It came by for the seed I put in the feeder. I remember marvelling at the colour and shape of the males, a real raspberry red. They sometimes have a peaked head also, and could erect the feathers to sort of look like a mini-crest. And that call note of theirs, so subtle yet so distinctive. I was onto this bird with the faintest and most distant “pip.”
Well, this morning, my hand was moving to tap the window to scare House Sparrows off the feeder – I do this from time to time though they really are not a problem – when I heard that “pip.” In the milisecond between my hand hitting the window and registering the pip, I glanced up into the Japanese Elm and the gaggle of Goldfinches, and there they were, a splendid male and female Purple Finch . then momentum of my hand carried to the glass pane . . “tap” and everyone flew off. I was upset with myself for a moment, but not for long.
Because that’s birding eh? You just need a pip, or a glimpse to turn your day around. So many observations are that, yet I cherish those ones, because at that instant I connect with the bird, with my past and my love for nature, my memories of my mother and the house I grew up in.
Last Thursday morning, after a night punctuated with fever-induced chills, tar-like mucous blocking my sinuses, and a deep sense of dread that somehow my malaise included insomnia to keep me from healing, I phoned in sick to work. This was one of those odd occasions when the couple is sick – my wife was sneezing, coughing and chilled with fever that started the day before – clearly we both had “it.” So we settled back into bed, a rare weekday morning at home, and we had no choice but to look after each other. Minutes later, while trying to relax a “Jay Jay” call drifted in through the partly opened window. Species 12, Blue Jay! Cris is crazy about the Jay, and hearing it even put a smile on her face.
Thursday night, I discovered Ibuprofin broke my fever around 4 am, and like magic, I slept, for hour stretches, soaking sheets and T-shirt after T-shirt. On Friday morning, after another frustrating interaction with the pathetic, non-existant health care system in Gatineau, we ventured into an Ottawa clinic where, amongst a room full of Quebec “orphan patients,” we waited for our eventual flu diagnosis. Remedy . . . more chicken soup, thyme-ginger-garlic and honey tisane and sleep. The first two, I could assure, but sleep was hard to attain. In my weakened state, I must admit that all I felt like doing was crawling inside a hole when I got home.
Saturday morning, in bed, after another night of shedding water and restlessness, I finally drifted asleep for a few minutes, only to wake to the ringing call of a Pileated Woodpecker, #13! Later that morning, when I was stumbling around the kitchen I looked out the window and there in the Japanese Elm was a Hairy Woodpecker, #14. After only seeing the gang of Downys this winter, the Hairy appeared massive! I wandered across the house, and immediately spotted the Pileated working some trees in Gatineau Park, about 40 m from my window. I couldn’t believe my luck. Though I felt like crap, I was pretty jazzed about the birds.
Cris was talking with her mother on Skype for several hours, so she brought me into the conversation, and I suggested we take her computer cam onto the balcony to show her mother snow as it was snowing nice big flakes. We open the balcony door
holding computer and cable and pointing the camera at our immediate neighbourhood. Cris explains the white stuff falling from the sky and covering the ground and cars to her mother in Sao Paulo who reacts in shock and disgust. “Que horror!” she kept saying, “que horror!” She could not imagine how people could move safely about in such wretched conditions. While all that was going on, I blurt out “Cooper’s Hawk,” (#15) as a powerful adult sped past the south side of the house. That bird would surely deserve the moniker “horror” from regulars at our feeder!
Sunday, was the first day a tiny bit of energy returned to my legs and I felt like eating. I heard another new species from bed, a Raven #16, croaking away with some Crows. Cris noticed the different sounds. Birding had never been so easy!
Monday, still not through with the flu, I stayed home and spare my colleagues. I spent some time watching birds feeding, and particularly noticing how much Juncos and Cardinals love our Christmas Tree. And, we love the Juncos, those little balls of grey and white feathers. We had tied our little Christmas Tree to the railing on the balcony last weekend, underneath the bird feeder. Now it has become a key habitat feature, capturing bits of sunflower seed, and providing dense shelter for a variety of wildlife. I saw its true value demonstrated for a cardinal today.
Something catches my eye. A sudden flash of birds through the window, and a quick glance at the feeders reveals no birds. Everything suddenly disappears and there is an eerie silence. Then out of the corner of my eye I notice movement along the north side of the house, then out into the open. The culprit: a female Sharp-shinned Hawk (#17). She lands in a tree, allowing a good view and even a photo. Then I look back at the balcony where I thought there were no birds. In the dense foliage of our Christmas tree someone was hiding. A Northern Cardinal, motionless, using the natural habitat of a Balsam Fir tree to save its life from a
fearsome predator. Three weeks earlier that tree was adorned with decorations, some of which were glass birds including cardinals. The Cardinal sat motionless in the tree for several minutes, then was gone. Eventually the tree, and the balcony was back to normal, a buzz with life. And it’s rubbing off on me, as my life is getting back to normal, which has a down side – less birding from the balcony!