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16 October 2009 @ 04:54 pm
Autumn Holiday  

As usual, my fiancé and I spent Thanksgiving in Cambridge with my family. This year, however, was different from previous years in that I spent no time visiting the trails in the Cambridge area with my parents. Instead, my mom accompanied us back on the 5-hour drive to Ottawa in order to spend the week birding with me! She was hoping to see some new birds, and as a good variety of species stop over in Ottawa during migration, I was certain that we could find a few to add to her life list.

One bird she had never seen before was the Brant goose, and I was hopeful that the lone Brant which had spent the summer at Andrew Haydon Park would still be there when we returned to Ottawa. When I checked my email after arriving home late in the afternoon on Thanksgiving Monday, however, I was surprised to read that a few hundred individuals had been seen on the river at Andrew Haydon Park only that morning! I told my mother about the sighting, and we left almost immediately to go see if the birds were still there.

Ross's Goose

The sun was low in the sky when we arrived, and the day was getting darker. We found the lone Brant in its usual spot by the western pond without any trouble. That was the first life bird for my mother. Then, when we checked the river, we saw a large flock of Brant on the water! There were at least 200 birds, and another large flock was circling overhead as if deciding whether to join the birds on the river. They were calling softly, and did not sound anything like the Canada Geese I am accustomed to. Instead, their constant murmuring calls reminded me something of the Sandhill Crane's call. I thought it was interesting that our summer Brant paid no attention to the flocks flying overhead or on the water.

The next day was gray and drizzly with intermittent showers. When it looked as though the rain had finally stopped later that afternoon, we headed over to Mud Lake where I was hoping to find some passerines and waterfowl. My mom hasn't seen a Blue-headed Vireo yet, and Mud Lake is a good spot to find them. The Ridge was quiet, but we found a small flock of juvenile White-crowned Sparrows at the eastern end and several Hermit Thrushes at the western end. I knew my mother hadn't seen a Great Black-backed Gull yet, and sure enough, when I checked the rapids from the top of the Ridge I could see a couple sitting on the rocks out in the river.

We descended the path toward the road, where I heard - and saw - both kinglets foraging in the treetops, and I was surprised when my mom said that she hadn't seen a Golden-crowned Kinglet before. This is a common bird during migration, and another easy one to add to her list. We then crossed the road and entered the woods where we saw another Ruby-crowned Kinglet, a Brown Creeper, and an Orange-crowned Warbler foraging in a shrub close to the ground. The Orange-crowned Warbler was only the third one that I've seen, and my mother's first. That was her fourth life bird of the trip, and the third of the day!

Mud Lake in autumn

We walked to the observation dock to scan the lake for waterfowl. A few American Wigeons were swimming in the middle of the lake, and a Pied-billed Grebe was preening near the southern shore, but there were no other unusual waterfowl on the lake. A raven flying over was about the only other bird of interest, and then the sun vanished. I was hoping to return to Cassels Street via the trail in the open area close to Britannia Road, but it began to rain again, curtailing my plans and our outing.

Rain clouds over Mud Lake

On Wednesday we were able to get out earlier in the morning. It was cold, as evidenced by the thin coat of frost covering the lawn and the roofs of the houses, and the sun was playing hide-and-seek with the clouds, but at least the rain clouds had moved on. We went to Andrew Haydon Park again, as I wanted to check the large flocks of Canada Geese for other species such as Snow Goose or Cackling Goose. We stopped by the sandbar at Ottawa Beach first, where we found a Great Black-backed Gull and a Herring Gull mixed in with the Ring-bills, then went over the western half of the park. We didn't see any unusual geese, but a Greater Yellowlegs walking along the edge of the pond gave us fantastic views.

Greater Yellowlegs and mallard

Greater Yellowlegs

Our next stop was Sarsaparilla Trail, where we found a new life bird for my mom - a couple of Fox Sparrows flitting about the trees. They didn't stick around long, unfortunately, and I was disappointed that my mother didn't get a better look at them. We walked the loop, finding plenty of juncos, a bright male cardinal, and the first Red-breasted Nuthatch I had seen since spring. We then went to the Rideau Trail off of Richmond Road, hoping to find the Black-backed Woodpecker that had been reported there the day before. We came up empty-handed.

Finally, I decided it might be worth driving the back roads near Richmond to see if we could find some American Pipits or large flocks of geese. Again we came up empty in our search, until I noticed a large raptor hovering in a field just south of Aikins Road. I stopped the car, and was surprised when I recognized the bird as a Rough-legged Hawk! I hadn't thought they would be moving south so early. Mom said she hadn't seen this hawk in the wild before - only the pair at the Raptor Center last spring - so I put the scope on the bird so she could see her second lifer of the day.

On our way back to the house we stopped at the Moodie Drive quarry ponds. There were lots of Ruddy and Ring-necked Ducks, as well as several Hooded Mergansers. My mom saw her first male Hooded Merganser, making the stop worth our while.

An adult Ross's Goose on Milton Road had been drawing attention for the past couple of days, so I thought we might as well head over to the east end the following day. I decided to try the Frank Kenny/French Hill Road area first, still hoping to find some pipits. This time we were successful, and found a couple of birds flying over on Wall Road and a good-sized flock on O'Toole. A few were even perching on the telephone wires! We then drove over to Milton Road, where Canada Geese had gathered in several fields in enormous flocks. My mother had never seen so many geese in one place. Just as I was beginning to despair of finding the Ross's Goose I noticed something blindingly white amongst the Canada Geese. When I pulled over, I took a look through my binoculars, and sure enough it was a goose!

Ross's Goose

The Ross's Goose is a rare bird in eastern Ontario, as it usually migrates south on a path over western Canada. It wasn't as small as I thought it would be. Fortunately, it was close enough to the road to allow me to photograph it and get a look at the shape of its bill, which is smaller and stubbier than the bill of a Snow Goose and lacking a black "grin patch". We watched the goose for a while, then headed back to the west end to check out one of my favourite trails, the Jack Pine Trail in Stony Swamp.

Jack Pine Trail

Sparrows are moving through right now, and we could hear the juncos calling in the bush and the high, thin chip notes of the White-throated Sparrows. We saw one standing on the edge of the boardwalk.

White-throated Sparrow

Further on we came across a small flock of juncos foraging among the fallen leaves in the middle of the path. I noticed a slightly larger, lighter coloured bird with them and pointed it out to my mother. She was able to get a good, long look at the Fox Sparrow before it disappeared into a dip in the trail, and I was hoping to edge closer to it in order to photograph it. Unfortunately the birds all spooked and flew off into the bush.

We saw some Golden-crowned Kinglets as well, much lower than they were at Mud Lake, and my mother got another good look at this life bird. There were no ducks other than the mallards at the boardwalks, and they swam up to us looking for food. Someone must have been there earlier, for there were small piles of cracked corn on the boardwalk rails. We scraped the corn into the water, and the ducks fed enthusiastically.

Back in the woods, another group of juncos was feeding on some corn left on a large rock. Chickadees and a white-breasted nuthatch were feeding on the corn as well.

Junco and White-breasted Nuthatch

I caught a quick glimpse of a Fox Sparrow flying off, and once again this bird eluded my camera. I contented myself with photographing the juncos instead.

Dark-eyed Junco

We met a friendly Red-breasted Nuthatch further along, which took the seed fearlessly from our hands. Both nuthatches have been hard to find all summer, and now I had both feeding out of my hand on almost every trail!

The first three days of my vacation passed by quickly, but my mom and I were both happy with the birds we had found and the variety of species present. Not only had I found eight lifers for her so far, I had also found one for myself! Even in mid-October there are still lots of great birds to be found, and I was looking forward to seeing what the following days would bring.

  • Lifer #256 Ross's Goose