This winter was up and down and all over the place with copious snow falls, several pulses of milder air, the occasional rain and one or two extended periods of extreme cold. The net effect on the landscape in our region is that the river was frozen and the land covered with snow – whereas areas a mere 75 km away fields were bare. The birds get this – so the usual earliest migrants associated with open water – Ring-billed Gulls and Canada Geese, really only showed up in numbers after March 25th. The classic “winter” finches have been absent- only American Goldfinch has been regular this winter and House Finch showed up in the last two weeks! Until today, April 2, I had only recorded 25 species from the apartment and balcony for the year. Balcony birding has really been too cold anyway and all of my records were from inside.
Today the temperature soared to 10 degrees C, so I was out there for a few hours on the balcony when I returned from cross country skiing, and almost matched my year total of 25 species in a few hours of birding. Twenty three species, including five new ones – the first blackbirds – Common Grackle and Red-winged Blackbird, a Turkey Vulture, a Cooper’s Hawk and the morning started with a serenading Song Sparrow. Some of these species have been in the city in other areas for the last week or more but have been avoiding my place, at least when I have been at home paying attention!
Despite the relative slow start to the year (not unlike last year which eventually took off, shattering my previous species totals), birding from the balcony has not been without highlights. Take “Goldie” for example. From November until the end of February, a brilliant golden and black male American Goldfinch periodically visited our feeders. Not moulting into its drab fall plumage, this bird has been a stunner throughout the winter. I put this strange phenomenon out to my ornithologist friends to seek an explanation of how or why this would happen and if there are known examples of a species that goes through two distinct moult cycles a year skipping one of them. No one I spoke with heard of this or had an answer. Now, after the end of February, we stopped seeing Goldie – there had been periods of a couple weeks when this had happened earlier, so we did not know if the bird had perished or moved on, or perhaps moulted. In March, particularly towards the end of the month, we started seeing a few males with bright feather patches and one with an almost entire black cap and considerable gold – though not in the immaculate plumage of our Goldie.
Elementary forensic evidence – victim male House Sparrow
The second highlight was a bit of a repeat from last year with a slightly changed cast of characters – at least the predator. Last year I witnessed a Cooper’s Hawk hunting birds near our place. It was successful in capturing a male House Sparrow. This year it was a Sharp-shinned Hawk that captured a male House Sparrow. It prepared and ate the sparrow on the snow in the neighbour’s yard behind a cedar hedge. I could sort of watch it pluck feathers from its victim over many minutes (though I was unable to identify the victim), then slowing consume it by tearing shreds of meat off the bird. Like last year, I was fascinated by the amount of time the hawk took to eat – probably an hour. Lots to learn from these hawks about not eating too fast. Afterwards I visited the crime scene and found many body feathers from a male House Sparrow – likely showing off, unaware of the danger lurking on the other side of the hedge and paying a dear price for its vanity.
So my ears are cocked each night as I anticipate the next warm southerly breeze and the new visitors it might bring.
There are a couple hundred bird species that nest to the north of Gatineau, where we live. They migrate over my head twice a year, north each spring and south each fall. Some of them stop to rest and feed in the neighbourhood, but many just fly over, never stopping. Occasionally those that fly over betray their presence by a call note – perhaps to keep in touch with their conspecific buddies.
I count all birds that I can identify by sight or sound from our flat. My rules are simple: if I can identify it, I count it. I have to be either inside our 2nd floor flat or on the balcony. I don’t count birds that I observe from any other place. Many species are on my list because I heard them from bed – sometimes over-night, sometimes before getting out of bed in the morning. The bedroom window is usually wide open, allowing sounds from outside to filter in. During the work week, traffic sounds from busy Alexandre Tache Street drown-out most nature sounds. On the weekend it is different – often quiet enough to hear and recognize distant call notes from birds overhead.
On my last post, a way back in July, I was musing about my goal to observe another 9 new species from the large pool of possibilities that slipped past in the spring to get to that magical 100 for the year. Perhaps it is silly to be obsessed over a number – but I can think of worse obsessions. This post describes what happened since July. I have been travelling for work in August and again more recently, and for vacations with Cris. I’ve been away many weekends. When I have been here on Saturday or Sunday, I make an effort to spend as much time as I can spare birding from inside or on the balcony.
I added three species in August – Greater Yellowlegs – the only shorebird other than Killdeer – heard calling while flying over. There is no shorebird habitat around our place so the only way to observe one is by hearing its flight calls. A singing Eastern Wood Pewee wandered into earshot in my neighbourhood for a few days, likely practicing for next spring, and a Rose-breasted Grosbeak turned up in the Japanese Elm by the balcony, lifting me to 94 species by the end of August. September held more promise for species missed in the spring. A Common Merganser flew into view above the Ottawa River. Never easy to observe, this species is a regular on the Ottawa but as I don’t have a direct view of the River seeing one requires some luck!
There were two warbler species observed in mid-month that slipped passed unnoticed in the spring. Blackpoll Warbler and Northern Parula both made pit stops in the neighbour’s magnificent spruce trees that, no doubt, resemble the tree that they are most familiar with. Watching them glean insects from the foliage is a reminder how much birds do to keep our forests healthy. Even the migrants coming through are busy forestry workers. Another attractive bird, a Philadelphia Vireo, foraged for several minutes in a Manitoba Maple across the street on the edge of Gatineau park. By the end of September I was up to 98 species. Surely with three months to go, 2 more species would be easy?
Observing species 99 was all about being in the right place at the right time. On October 12, while scanning the Park across the street, an Accipiter floated up above the tree line, moving north into the park. It flew directly past. It was a new species for the year, a Sharp-shinned Hawk – specialist in eating small birds. I could hear the Chickadees react to the hawk on the other side of the house. Chickadees are sentries for other species, warning of danger. We love our Chickadees and imagine that this sentiment is shared by many other species.
Once at 99 species, I assemble a hypothetical list of the remaining possibilities and how to maximize my opportunities to observe a new species. There were several species associated with the Ottawa River – gulls and waterfowl mainly, that should be possible. There were still some raptors that migrate high above, following Gatineau Park south to the Ottawa River when the weather conditions are right. Then there are the songbirds that migrate late into the fall: finches, Snow Buntings, Sparrows. I just needed to put in time for all of these possibilities and I know that there would be a reward.
Yesterday morning, November 12, just after waking I heard it. A clear call note, followed by a distinctive trill. I blurted out the name “Snow Bunting” to Cris, who is remarkably understanding and supportive. While I tore myself from the bed, grabbing pants and a shirt, Cris located my binoculars.. Of course it took far too long for me to get on the balcony and the bird was long gone but there was no doubt. species 100 is Snow Bunting. Today, November 13, I was up at 8 am, sitting on the window ledge, window wide open, me half hanging out, when I heard another Snow Bunting’s crisp and clear clarion note, followed by the trill.
So here I sit ready to celebrate with a nice meal, with a good wine and Cris who puts up with my obsession. I am happy that she has grown to love the birds also, especially some of the regulars – goldies, “di dis”, Sitelles, Cuckoos (downy woodpecker), Cardinal, but especially the crazy Blue Jays!
July 16-17, a rare summer weekend with no plans, and a bit of time to spend on the balcony and to recap what has happened with my birding from the balcony project since that extraordinary month of May. Our balcony is a very comfortable place to hang out in the summer – literally. We have an excellent hammock that stretches pretty much the length of the balcony, and fortunately Cris and I don’t argue over it, though it is a pretty sweet place to be on a warm day. The main bird feeder is about a metre above and off to the right of where my head is when I lay in the hammock. Better that it is not direcly above or it would be showered with sunflower chips! The hummingbird feeder is above the railing hanging from the roof, as are several hanging flowers. Water in plastic olive containers attached to the wooden supports are positioned at either end of the balcony, and a nyger feeder hangs out over the garden below.
The Japanese elm in front of the balcony grows like a weed and is a sight to behold. There is constant motion and movement within its foliage, mainly from a family or families of chickadees that pretty much own the place. They constantly zip in and out from the feeder, the water, and the plants, with the tree as their base. Bright golden tennis ball-like male American Goldfinches and their more earthy-coloured wives and the teenagers from last year are ever present also. There are always several goldies, as we call them, squeeking and chattering away and squacking at the peppy chickadees when they face-off at the feeder. Never far away is a family of White-breasted Nuthatches, Downy Woodpeckers, a Hairy Woodpecker, Cardinals, Chipping Sparrows, Song Sparrows, and House Sparrows. The hummingbird zipped in today while my eyes were closed. There was also a visit from an unexpected visitor. Nothing new for the year, but a surprise nonetheless, a Yellow Warbler. It looked like a young bird, wandering through the neighbourhood, a sign that the breeding season has come to a close for some species. The tree and yard is not Yellow Warbler breeding habitat, but we are past breeding season for this species, at least this individual – which serves as a reminder to me that birds wander around after breeding and during migration, and that anything can turn up in that tree! I just have to keep vigil.
June and early July were very slow after migration ended, but I applied a new technique, using my excellent scope to watch an open area between two trees over the Ottawa River in hope of adding a few more birds. While I cannot see the river as it is completely hidden by a combination of a giant apartment building, other buildings and trees, as well as the slope of the land – we are about 25 metres above the river, there is one patch of space where there is a gap in the trees and I can see much closer to the level of the river, perhaps within about 5 metres. I see birds streaming past through this gap in the last hour or so of the day. That gap proved to be enough to notice many swallows feeding above the river. When the light was right, even from about a kilometre, I was able to see enough detail to identify two new species for the year – Cliff Swallow and Tree Swallow. Both nest within a few kilometres so their presence is not a surprise. All I needed was a strategy I guess.
Another new species was Black-crowned Night Heron. It nests within a kilometre or two from our place but mostly stays along the river and of course is more active at night. The first one was spotted passing through the same gap over the river. A day later I saw two fly past our apartment at about 9 pm.
So that puts me at 91 species for mid July- edging closer to my goal of 100. It will not be easy to get to 100, but with the knowledge that there are a couple hundred species to the north of us that migrate over or past our place each late summer and fall, I know that I have a shot. I just have to be in the right place at the right time to detect them. This will mean putting in observation time later this summer and this fall.
However, those species for which our balcony is home, the chickadees and goldies especially, bring great delight to us every day!
Migration is a beautiful and mysterious thing. It is predictable yet full of surprises. I like that! While veteran birders recognize general patterns in terms of what species can be expected to show up when, the exact nature is determined by local and regional weather conditions, and in eastern Canada that means that no two migrations are the same. Southerly winds bring migratory birds north into eastern Canada in the spring. Clouds, rain and cold fronts (with northerly winds) halt or slow the migration until conditions become more favourable. Paying attention to the weather in the spring is the most helpful thing a birder can do to take full advantage of the migration phenomenon.
In Gatineau – Ottawa, May started as it typically does with quavering whistles of White-throated Sparrows, flashes of yellow from Yellow-rumped and Palm Warblers, and bursts of energy from the tiny Ruby-crowned Kinglets. For some reason this spring the Yellow-rumped warblers uncharacteristically vanished almost as soon as they arrived. White-crowned sparrows joined their white-throated cousins around the second week of May, heralding the big warbler push. I was lucky to be at home on a day when 12 species of warblers paraded by the apartment including Black-throated Green, Magnolia, Chestnut-sided, Blackburnian, Cape May, and many others along with Baltimore Orioles, a few Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, and a smattering of other species including Cris’s favourite . . . Blue Jays. Towards the month end, I was fortunate to hear Brant fly over, as they likely often do, unnoticed, but this year I was ready for them and their different honks to Canada Geese. I heard a Swainson’s Thrush migrating at 4 am, and was fortunate to be hanging out the window when a Barn and a Rough-winged Swallow zinged past. In fact, since April, I have been lucky to observe five new species for our place – American Tree Sparrow, Indigo Bunting, Rough-winged Swallow, Lincoln’s Sparrow, and Brant.
The yellow nape of the Cape May Warbler is a good field mark. After being away for a few months we are thrilled to have Blue Jays back in the neighbourhood! photos by Ted Cheskey
Not being away for long periods has helped me build my list of 75 species for the month of May. This was a surprise to me, but in fact it reflected the regular time that I have invested in birding – usually before work, getting up before the sun rose and spending an hour to 90 minutes hanging out the window or on the balcony. The later was harder early in the spring because it was often cold or windy, but always worth it. There were so many times that I stepped out only to meet a new species in the tree. One day it was a Sapsucker. Another a black-throated Blue Warbler. Another day a Merlin. All of these were spotted the instant I stepped out onto the balcony and gone seconds later. The remarkable thing is that I have only observed these birds on that one occasion – probably at least 10 species were added in that way.
Another highlight for me was seeing our feeders on the National as part of a piece on the launch of the State of North American Birds Report: 2016. Good to know where you can see birds when you have to!
I haven’t mentioned my friend Al for a while. Al got me started on this project a few years back by challenging me to a friendly birding competition from our respective places. I always felt that our situations were not comparable; he has a beautiful and diverse multi hectare property with fields, forest and wetlands where he works as his “yard” whereas i am in my apartment or on the balcony in an urban part of a city. That said, I acknowledge that for certain things I have an advantage – being here every evening and night I can hear birds, even if it is in a city. Also, it is not “any” city – it is Gatineau, and I am beside Gatineau park less than a kilometre from the mighty Ottawa River. But dear Al cracked 100 species by the end of May and is currently around 105.
So when the clock passed midnight and May became June, I added things up and discovered with some delight that I had observed 86 species so far this year from apartment 6, 29 Boucherville, surpassing my hoped-for target of 80! I still have hopes of adding another 14, though I know it will be tough. The spring migration is effectively over, and I need to put the time in to spot a wandering non-breeding that I have somehow missed, like an Eastern Wood Peewee, or that Pine Warbler that lives about 500 metres from our place, just out of earshot, or the Night Herons that nest on the river about 1500 metres from my place! Eventually they will show us. I just need to be there also!
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.