Bird-watching, or birding, has grown in the past three decades from a small handful of birders into a huge thriving network in the Ottawa area. With a Bird Fair, a bird sighting column in the Ottawa Citizen, even three birding companies offering field trips, birds and birding are popular in Ottawa!
A huge community of birders exists in not only our Ottawa area but across Ontario, with more than four thousand members of the Facebook group Ontario Birds. It seems everyone is birding: kids and their parents, teens and young adults, right through to the baby boomer generation and older. It could be argued that birding has become an industry. The stereotypical birder is: over the age of thirty, has disposable income to spend, is outfitted with binoculars (Bins), a scope, a camera with a big telephoto lens, a tripod, field guides, snacks, coffee, or hot chocolate in my case.
A humorous story often repeated by one of the top birders in Ottawa, owner of birding and photo workshop company Always An Adventure, comes from Tony Beck:
Beck says a typical question often asked by curious non-birders to us out in the field is:
“What are you doing?”
“We’re just looking for birds!”
“What are you going to do with the birds once you find them?”
“We study them, learn what we can by observing and listening, we APPRECIATE them, check them off on the day list, or if we’re lucky, the life list.”
During the late fall and winter months, one can find several types of birds. Here are the top four spots to check out in the Ottawa region, if you want the best chance to see as many different species as possible:
#1 Lac Deschênes:
Lac Deschênes is now an official I.B.A. (Important Bird Area). With open water all year round, this is the best spot to find over-wintering ducks and other waterfowl. It’s common to spot thousands of Canada Geese in late fall, and all through the winter various ducks, grebes, mergansers and gulls can be spotted, sometimes close enough to shore for a photo. Several lookouts afford great views of the open water sections of the Ottawa River, both on the Ottawa side and the Aylmer side. Don’t miss Bate’s Island along the Island Park Bridge. As always, take extreme care around the Ottawa River in the winter!
#2 NCC Greenbelt:
The NCC Greenbelt connects the city with a suitable, sheltered habitat, for many different birds. In the West, a stop at the Jack Pine Trail off Moodie Drive can add such spectacles as Black-backed Woodpecker to your day list. The usual Black-capped Chickadees, American Tree Sparrows, White-breasted Nuthatches, Blue Jays, are all found or heard within minutes of arrival. If you’re lucky, you may catch a glimpse of a Common Raven, or rarer yet, a Northern Goshawk, or the ghost of the forest, the Barred Owl.
Mud Lake, along Cassels Street, is part of the Lac Deschênes I.B.A. and will have Downy Woodpeckers, White-breasted Nuthatches, and the ever present Black-capped Chickadees taking seeds right out your hand. “A chickadee a day keeps the doctor away,” as my friend Nina Stavlund of Always An Adventure says. See gorgeous pairs of Northern Cardinals along the trails -the male’s bright red plumage giving him away especially after fresh snowfall. Find huge flocks of Bohemian Waxwings feasting on the fruit producing trees. Bald Eagles patrol the shoreline, sending the ducks flying in every direction. The famous ‘Ridge’ can be found here, providing great views over the lake and the Deschênes Rapids, is well worth checking in winter.
In the East of the city, the Dolman Ridge at Mer Bleu Bog, is very good, with feeders and great trails for Winter birding. Petrie Island is a photographer’s dream, often providing good birding and photo-ops.
#3 Open Fields:
Checking the fields outside of the city, one can see a sight which Southern birders only dream about: The Snowy Owl! Perching on hydro poles, fences, rock piles, using ditches for cover and protection from the wind, these birds receive the most attention from birders and photographers during their stay each winter, as they migrate back to their nesting grounds up North in the spring. Some of these birds may be stressed, low on energy, trying to hunt or just stay concealed from mobbing birds like crows. Over eager photographers bait the owls for photos, which is a matter of deep contention in the birding community. Enjoy these birds from the comfort of your vehicle, do not approach on foot too closely, and most definitely never feed them, they’re top predators deserving respect.
While out there driving around the countryside and open farmlands, you may see large flocks of Snow Buntings moving around in search of corn leftover after the fall harvest. Find the one Lapland Longspur in one of these flocks and your day is made! Try spotting a Gray Partridge or Wild Turkeys along the fields, or look for the tell-tale ‘lumps’ in bare trees, which could be one of several raptors like the Rough-legged Hawk!
#4 Eardley Escarpment:
The Eardley Escarpment in Gatineau Park is a well-known area to observe the majestic Golden Eagle and Bald Eagle. A scope will be handy for scanning the snow covered pines on the escarpment. The sheltered spots along the interior of the escarpment can harbour flocks of redpolls, waxwings, and grosbeaks. Once in a while, Great Gray Owls can be found in the meadows and open fields of the valley floor, ever so ready to catch a mouse or vole.
Birding is only one of the great fall and winter season activities Ottawa has to offer. To learn more about what to see and do, browse Ottawa Tourism’s website.
Image credit: Joshua McCullough