Lanark Big Year
A Lanark Big Year – Full Circle – January 2015
The year has come full circle and I sit here in my family room thinking about how fast it went. First things first. As of my last report (Nov 15th) I was at 197 species. By that point every new bird required a lot of effort, usually in the form of multiple trips to locations which presented the best chance of a target species. The water in the Almonte lagoons had frozen over so I concentrated on ducks at open water spots like the Madawaska Dam, and along the Mississippi and Rideau Rivers. As well I started frequenting the Perth Dump as they are ideal places for gulls late in the year. I even established a relationship with the guy at the entrance hut as well as discussing raptors with the backhoe operator at the top of the garbage mountain. Eventually these cold and smelly trips paid off in late November when 4 Great Black-backed Gulls, #198, turned up. They were amongst a large number of Herring Gulls whereas most of the Ring-billeds had already left. I was still hoping to find Iceland and Glaucous Gulls but further trips to the dump produced fewer and fewer gulls and nothing new.
While further trips to the Madawaska Dam didn’t turn up any new species there was one spectacular sighting there; as I was slowly scanning 3 or 4 thousand geese one day, all of a sudden they all took off simultaneously. The sound of their wings and the honking filled the air as well as my head, so I stood there just enjoying it. A car stopped beside me and the driver pointed out the Bald Eagle that had just landed 100 meters behind me. Now I understood what had spooked the geese.
In early December I got a message from Mike Jaques that a single Common Redpoll had turned up at a feeder in town, so I quickly drove over and located #199 feeding on the ground below a very active feeder. Redpolls continued in low numbers all the way to the end of the year.
I decided one day to return from my daughter’s place in Ottawa via Merrickville as there is open water on and off between there and Smith Falls. It was a propitious decision as just west of Merrickville and viewable from Hwy 43 I found a group of gulls standing on the ice by the open water. The 2 gulls I had almost given up on were there, Glaucous and Iceland. These gulls are often referred to as white-winged Gulls because they have little or no black at the wing tips and they lack the clear colour distinction between the wing tops and the rest of the body which most gulls have. As well the Glaucous looks like it has dipped just the end of its bill in ink while the juvenile Iceland’s bill is all dark. These were birds #200 and #201. I had reached my goal of 200 so a bottle of bubbles was shared that night. Of course this only meant I now wanted to see how far past 200 I could go.
Over the next weeks there were many trips along Bellamy Road looking for any finches, follow-ups to Madawaska Dam as well as slow drives along many of the eastern roads of the county where there are open fields looking for Longspurs. Perseverance paid off as I came across 8 Bohemian Waxwings on Bellamy road, bird #202 on a cold and sunny day. During the Carleton Place Christmas Bird Count on the 27th I got an email from Ken Allison that there was one Hoary Redpoll amongst 10 Commons at their feeder. I was there in minutes and spent over an hour watching the feeders until the Hoary turned up again; bird #203. This left 4 days in the 2014 so I concentrated on one more species, the White-winged Crossbill. In past year’s I have seen them in the Lanark Highlands and even in our backyard This year there were very few reported but Ken Allison had several flyovers at his place during December. I combined driving the roads of the Highlands, stopping at stands of conifers, especially Spruce and Tamarack, their favourite, listening for their calls, with stops at Ken’s to stand in the cold beside the pond hoping to hear one. I was there so often that their dog became my friend. My last attempt was New Year’s Eve. I arrived around 2 PM and stood by the pond listening carefully for nearly 2 hours. The only sound was the wind through the trees, a Pileated banging on trees, the yank yank of Nuthatches and the cracking of the ice. I eventually realized it was done, there was to be no Crossbill, let alone any more days on the road for the Lanark big year. So I surrendered to just enjoy the moment as the sun, low on the horizon, peeked in and out of the heavy overcast. I returned home to enjoy tapas, bubbles and time with my family, happy with the year’s result.
A quick wrap of the numbers is always in order. At least if you are an A type like me. In one year I identified 203 species! It is interesting to note that my lifetime species count for Lanark County is 215. On top of that there are a number of birds I know were seen in Lanark in 2014 that I missed including; Northern Mockingbird, Whimbrel, Black-crowned Night Heron, Great Egret, Peregrine Falcon, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Screech, Long-eared and Short-eared Owls, Red-headed Woodpecker, Carolina Wren, Prairie Warbler, Lincoln’s Sparrow, and that elusive White-winged Crossbill.
Highlights of the year included finally seeing Trumpeters Swans in Carleton Place and then seeing them several more times in the county, finding the Long-billed Dowitcher in the fields besides Ramsay 7, listening to Woodcocks while drinking wine, getting Gray Jays at a hunting camp in the north of the county, listening to Chuck-will’s-widow at High Lonesome, calling in two Saw-whet Owls on a calm March evening and the buzz of Golden-winged Warblers at Murphy’s Point. I discovered that birds such as Yellow-throated Vireo, Scarlet Tanager and Whip-poor-Will are common in the county. As well I experienced the cycles of migration and movement birds engage in every year.
I want to thank everyone who called, texted, and emailed me with sightings. Without your help I never would have reached 200. I also want to thank Martha and Arnie Simpson, Ruth and Ken Allison, Joyce and Mike Jaques and my Ottawa buddies Paul and Rick. I thank all of you for the constant help and patience with my endless emails. Finally I have to recognize my partner Zaza’s contribution. She joined me to take pictures, packed up snacks and hot drinks for my many forays, accepted that at any moment I might jump off the couch, exclaiming that a “so and so” bird was just reported as I raced to the door and left with a brief “see you later”, and for always asking what I had seen when I returned! I am sure I never got home when I said I would. Love you
NOTE: All photos by Susan Wilkes except as indicated
A Lanark Big Year – Nov 15th – Fall
Well it is Nov 15th. It seems forever ago I started a big year and, at the same time, like yesterday. There is only 6 weeks to go and many miles before I am done. The great thing about fall is that the spring migration happens in reverse so there are opportunities to see species one missed in the spring.
The Almonte lagoons continue to be an excellent location. I visited the lagoons almost once a week since September. In early October there were 15 Pectoral Sandpipers close to the viewing stand. The breast has a clear demarcation where the streaks end, as well the bird has a white eyebrow. The Pectorals stayed there over several weeks in varying numbers. Oct 4th turned up one Greater white-fronted Goose amid the 1 to 2 thousand Canada Geese Ten minutes after spotting the goose when another birder arrived to see the Greater white-fronted, I could no longer find it amongst the Canadas. I have experienced this many times before and never did find it again.
Throughout the fall there has been Cackling Geese present with more than 10 at some times. It was an excellent opportunity to see the clear differences. By Oct 10th the Ruddy Ducks arrived and continue to be present even now although in reduced numbers. A lone Bonaparte’s Gull floated around the lagoon for over a week accompanied by a few Ring-billed Gulls.
The return of the ducks on the way south included flocks of Green-winged Teal, Ring-necked Duck, Lesser Scaup and Redheads. The year has provided the chance to really observe the cyclical nature of bird life. In the early spring you see Red Necked Grebes going north and on Oct 19th the Grebes appeared again on the Mississippi and Rideau Rivers going south.
The wooded area along the trail into the lagoons had small flocks of warblers on and off especially if the weather was bad. Mostly Yellow-rumps and a few Cape-Mays silently feeding in the tree tops. It was also an excellent spot for seeing dozens of White-throated and White-crowned Sparrows.
Through October and into November the Rough-legged Hawks arrived in the eastern fields of the county in good numbers. These dark raptors can be seen hovering over fields along 12th Concession Ramsay north of Panmure as well as Ramsey 7th north of Wolf Grove.
I was treated to a flight of Trumpeter Swans at McGowan Lake at Hwy 7. There were 5 swans. I passed this spot almost every weekend this fall and saw up to ten Trumpeters on the lake. On one of these trips at dusk a flock of smaller birds disappeared into a field of dry soybean plants near Gardiner Road and Hwy 7. I couldn’t find a single bird until I crossed the fence and walked the field until I got close enough to flush roughly 20 Pipits.
Late in October the Hooded Mergansers appeared in flocks from 10 to 20 in size along the Mississippi and Rideau Rivers. It is a treat whenever one of the males fans out the head feathers showing the large white headgear.
November started the arrival of the winter species I desperately need to reach my goal. Pine Siskins stopped at our pine trees for 10 minutes one day. I visited Ken Allison’s to see 2 male and 1 female Grosbeak. But the highlight of November so far was on Thursday, November 13th. My friend Howard had arranged to visit a hunting camp in the Highlands where Whiskey Jacks come for the winter. We travelled west from Clayton and up Darling towards the California Road. We turned into a side trail with a simple tree trunk pole for a gate. The road, no more than a track, wound through the woods. It was one vehicle wide with large rocks and gullies in the middle and the occasional trees that had fallen partially over the route. We stopped at a couple of ponds to see some Mergansers and Geese. Eventually we arrived at a small hunting camp complete with 3 freshly killed deer, gutted and handing from an old pine, a one story rustic cabin and several hunters in their bright orange outfits. Seems the Gray Jays travel south in winter to the camp and feed at the bellies of the deer as well as any bread the hunters throw out. We waited for nearly two hours with no luck and finally decided to leave. Luckily my final look around the tree tops turned up one Gray Jay flying overhead. My first in Lanark. It is commonly thought that these Jays only come as far south as Algonquin Park, but I can attest they are here in Lanark and maybe in larger numbers than we know.
This photo of a pair of Gray Jays was taken last year by Howard Robinson at the same place I saw the Gray Jay this year.
From there I had to meet an old canoeing friend, Karl on White Lake, as I wanted to look for Scoters, Grebes and Long-tailed Ducks. There were only Loons and Mergansers on the lake, so I decided to go home via the Madawaska Dam at Arnprior which has a spit of land on the north side which is still in Lanark County. While searching the several thousand geese near the shore for a possible Brant, Karl, a non-birder, spotted a White-winged Scoter. Another first for the county for me. It was a juvenile which can be confused with the juvenile Surf Scoter except this bird fanned out one wing to show the white wing patch.
So I am at 197 with 6 weeks to go. Reaching 200 seems very possible but every new species requires a significant investment in time. I am hoping the Christmas Bird Count ensures 200+. My target birds now are owls (SE, LE, GG and Boreal), Crossbills, Redpolls and Bohemian Waxwings.
Please share sightings of these birds at
Cheers from the guy with the crazy idea till next report.
A Lanark Big Year – Sept 15th – Summer
This is my first report since early July! Summer is a very slow time of year for birding, the forests are mostly quiet and the migration is over. On top of that I took a contract job in Mississauga in mid-July so I am only birding in the county on weekends.
For the months of July and August I saw one new species, a juvenile Goshawk just south of Blakeney. I was treated to seeing it fly, observing it for 5 minutes in a tree as well as listening to its call, which is repetitive and helps distinguish it from other accipters. The same day I saw two Sandhill Cranes gliding in unison over the fields west of Mountain View Road. Despite the lack of new species I had some very enjoyable days around the county. July turned up Bald Eagles being harassed by Ring-billed Gulls at Christie Lake and Yellow-throated Vireo calling on Anglican Church Road. I must be close to 10 of these Vireos I have heard or seen this year making me realize they are more common here than I ever expected.
My buddy Paul joined me for a canoe trip from Perth to the Beveridge Locks in the hopes of seeing a Sora Rail or Black-crowned Nightheron. No luck with either but we saw lots of Moorhens, American Bittern and Black Terns.
Canoe-birding the Tay (photo Paul Roy)
In August I started visiting the Almonte Lagoons every Saturday hoping to catch early shorebird migrants. Early in the month there was one Trumpeter Swan as well as Yellowlegs and Solitary Sandpipers. The lagoons are an excellent place to visit throughout the year with a well maintained path through the woods to a viewing stand. The woods are good for warblers and vireos both in spring and fall. The last time there a small warbler fallout was in progress after the rain with dozens of Yellow-rumps and a few Cape Mays bouncing around the trees. The real attraction is the lagoon itself. The water levels have taken a long time to lower enough to create good habitat for shorebirds. In the last two weeks I have seen dozens of Blue-winged Teal, Wood Duck, Mallard and a couple of Black Ducks. As well the shorebirds are starting to arrive with one Whimbrel spotted which I missed by half a day. Small groups of Short-billed Dowitchers, White-rumped, Pectoral and Semipalmated Sandpipers have arrived. The lagoons also turned up my first American Pipit of the year. I usually go to Algonquin to see flocks of Pipits so this was a first in the county for me.
As well I am constantly learning about more than just birds. A beautiful Polyphemus Moth turned up at the front door. It is named after the Cyclops Polyphemus, a one eyed monster that Homer encountered during his odyssey. They do not eat as adults, living only a week or two to mate, literally starving to death in the process. As well Ken help me identify the 12 Spotted Skimmer!
Polyphemus moth (photo Susan Wilkes)
12 Spotted Skimmer (photo Susan Wilkes)
So where do I stand at this point towards my goal of 200. I am at 189 which means it is still possible to get there but I will need some owls, more shorebirds and winter finches.
Cheers from the guy with the crazy idea till next report.
“A Lanark Big Year – March 25th – Harbingers of Spring!”
While the weather this year here in Lanark County has not been appreciated by many, and some would say abysmal, for the birds spring is in the air. Over the last month I have seen several signs of spring, some birds in our area are already calling to secure their territory and the first migrants have arrived. Early in March I started to notice Hairy Woodpeckers in groups of 2 or 3 chasing each other around the trees and chattering noisily. The Common Goldeneye on the rivers are flinging their heads backwards and calling, and the Cardinals are everywhere in our neighborhood, perched on high points, fluffed up with crest showing and saying what sounds exactly like “Pretty, Pretty, Pretty”. I guess if you’re a male then declaring your beauty works. The Goldfinches are starting to turn yellow again and the Purple Finches are singing.
Waterfowl is now arriving, treating us to Red-Necked and Pied-billed Grebes at Appleton for over a week and my first Canada Geese appearing along the river, including two at Jebbs creek just west of Smith Falls where it crosses County road 1. A pair stood on the creek bank on a small batch of brown grass within a field of deep snow looking for a place to start a nest. It is believed that the main driver for migration is food and the main trigger is the longer days even if the destination hasn’t quite escaped winter. Being first to secure a nesting site combined with the long summer days are significant contributors to maximizing the success of the next generation.
One of the treats for me as a birder this year was the arrival of the Trumpeter Swans. This a species I have never seen in Lanark County even though they commonly pass through every year and some nest locally. By mid-March there were reports of swans on the Tay River around DeWitts Corners, then 2 swam by houses at the east end of Lake Ave in Carleton Place. Close together two were at Clayton dam and 6 arrived on March 15th by the Carleton Place High School, which Arnie Simpson took pictures of and emailed me, one of which I have included. I had been trying to see Trumpeters for a couple of weeks by then, but when the email arrived I was just west of Arnprior birding with a buddy. We raced back to CP but by then they were gone. As a result I started checking 6 places on the Mississippi twice a day plus an extensive tour of the Tay with no luck. Then on Saturday March 22, another email from Arnie, a pair at the O-Kee-Lee park here in CP and luckily I was having coffee at home. Zaza can attest to the blur that left the house. The pair were still there and I got an excellent view of them, with their long straight bills, lack of yellow lores a la Tundras and they are considerably larger than a Tundra Swan. During these forays to see the swans I did regularly see the Adult Bald Eagle up and down the river as well as my first of the year Ring-billed Gulls (4) huddled on the ice near the boat launch.
March has not added many species to my list but some of them are special. Early in March I drove to the K&P Trail at Flower Station. It was a very clear and cold day. I walked west and spent two hours on the trail, dodging the occasional train of snowmobilers who must be enjoying this season. Eventually I heard the slow and irregular tapping of a woodpecker. By slogging through the thigh high snow I came across a female Black-backed Woodpecker working along a leaning dead tree. Unfortunately my photographer Zaza didn’t join me for a cold walk at 7 AM or I would have had an excellent picture. On a quick trip around the fields east of Appleton I came across a Merlin sitting on the side of an old manure pile which is located at the corner of Hamilton Side Rd and Ramsay 12. I always check this pile as it is a good spot for birds including large flocks of starlings using it for food and warmth. This was a female bird with the warm brown back, faint mustache and heavy breast streaks.
Finally I decided to test my owl calling abilities. I selected a calm slightly overcast evening when the temperature was close to zero. I drove up to Ramsay 7B just south of Sugar Bush Road where the roadsides are lined with cedars. I had been to this spot years ago when Michael Runtz had given a talk on owls at the Mill of Kintail and then went owling at this location and up the road for Barred owls. I used my cells’ bird call recordings to try and call in a Saw-whet Owl but with no luck. I thought maybe volume was the issue so I switched to doing the call myself. It took only about 10 minutes and I heard one owl calling faintly in the distance. It wasn’t long before it came much closer and second Saw-whet started up. At that point, I stopped and just listened to them calling to each other; one of those Zen moments!
First Turkey Vulture over our house on March 19th and first Great Blue Heron at Glen Isle on March 20th!
Okay so let’s wrap up my first three months with the numbers. I had identified 61 target birds for the first 90 days and after 81 days I have 54 species. If I had seen any of the normal winter Grosbeaks, Siskins, Redpolls and Crossbills I would have been at or above my target. So I will just have to get those species next winter. I have now created my next 3 month target list and it is comprised of 155 species. This number is large and reflects the nature of migration in Ontario; a punctuated event! My birding pals on the west coast who used to live in Ontario have all noted how dragged out is the coastal migration and that there is generally a lot less individuals at any one time.
So the next 3 months will be even busier than the first 3 and please share with me any unusual sightings at
Spring has sprung, the grass is ris, I wonder where the birdies is’?
February! What can one say about this month of cold and snow? Well for one thing, it has been a season of seeing one bird at a time! Lots of local day trips coupled with outings to the NW and SW corners of the county resulting in a maximum of one new species on any given day. As well I have noticed that Lanark has an incredible mixture of tree species, from the Pines, Spruces, Oaks, Maples, Hackberrys, Hickorys and many more. Last year I guided a couple, who are birding buddies of mine from Ferintosh, Alberta (south of Edmonton), around eastern Ontario and they loved the variety of tree species as much as the eastern birds. He worked as a forester for the Alberta government so he know his trees, and he was amazed at the variety. As well one notices how young many of the trees are, a result of the centuries of logging, both for settlement of the land and to supply the Royal Navy’s ship building yards.
This is also a year that the Great Lakes are more frozen then they have been in decades with the result that there may be more and different duck species on any open water there is left. In Almonte, I saw the 5 Redheads just east of the bridge, a first for my Lanark life list.
I have walked and driven the Mississippi River several times in the last month and regularly see Common Goldeneyes and Mallards at Appleton, and Carleton Place. I also spotted one sleeping male Red-breasted Merganser in the rapids by the Pakenham Five Span Bridge. He seemed unconcerned about the chunks of ice bopping around him as he dozed. In the last few days 7 Lesser Scaup turned up on the river across from the Carleton Place High School.
In early February, Zaza and I did a tour of the southwest corner of the county. It was another cold but at least sunny day and we worked our way west on County Rd 6 from Perth to Althorpe and then onto to County Rd 36. South on 36 takes you out of the county as we crossed the Tay River which still had an open stretch. We turned left onto Parish Rd to head back toward the county and came across the site of the first Roman Catholic Church in that area established in 1840. It was established by Irish priests from Armagh and all that was visible was a marker. Parish Rd got us back to County Rd 10 (Westport Road) and travelling east we came to the Lanark County sign. So far all we had seen were Crows, Ravens and Blue Jays. Is it just me or are there many more Blue Jays this year? We see them throughout the county as well mobbing feeders. From there we travelled all the way to Merrickville, where just on the edge of town a Sharpie dashed across the road and behind a house. I suspect lunch was ready at the feeder. We ended the day by coming up the eastern edge of the county surveying all the fields for Larks but no luck.
Our second day trip was to Blueberry Mountain. The drive turned up a beautiful Adult Bald Eagle soaring near Hopetown, Purple Finches on Flower Station Road and of course Blue Jays everywhere. We reached the Blueberry Mountain parking lot but there was way too much snow to do any hiking without snowshoes. I now know the area better and plan on hiking the K&P Trail in the spring.
I decided it required a more concerted effort to find Larks so I started driving all of the eastern county roads with large open fields between Pakenham and Merrickville. Persistence paid off. We found a small flock of Snow Buntings on the edge of McArton Rd near the Appleton Road end and stopped. Again Zaza was the first to notice the two Horned Larks just into the open field and separated from the Buntings.
Okay now for the numbers. Remember I had identified 61 target birds for the first three months of 2014, well I have only seen 34 so far; not a single Siskin, Redpoll, Crossbill or Grosbeak in sight. In addition I have seen 8 species I didn’t target for this season, such as the Varied Thrush, Robin and some of the Ducks, for a total of 42. It is a slow start for a target of 200.
So remember to let me know of interesting birds you see, such as Owls, Raptors in general, Longspurs and any of the normal winter finches I am missing. Email me at
Cheers and may March be better!