Connecting people with nature in Ontario's Mississippi Valley

A Lanark Big Year – Full Circle – January 2015

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.

Lanark Sign (3)

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.

Bald_Eagle (2)

Bald Eagle

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.

Tree Sparrow

Tree Sparrow

Nuthatch (2)


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.

Ken's Pond (2)

Ken’s Pond. Photo by Iain Wilkes

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.

Barred Owl (2)

Barred Owl

Raven&HawkI 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

Tea (2)









NOTE: All photos by Susan Wilkes except as indicated



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A Lanark Big Year – March 25th – Harbingers of Spring!

“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.

iana Common Goldeneye   Iain's cardinal

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.

Iains Trumpeter swans

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.

Iains K&P Trail

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 .

iains Christie Lake

Spring has sprung, the grass is ris, I wonder where the birdies is’?





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A Lanark Big Year – February 28th – One Bird at a Time!

pdf  with photos: A Lanark Big Year –  February 28- One Bird at a Time!

Southwest Corner of the CountyLanark Country Roads2









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.


First Catholic Church2

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.

Blueberry Mountain

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.

purple finch2




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!




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A Lanark Big Year – January 1st – Land of the Snowy Owls

“A Lanark Big Year – January 1st – Land of the Snowy Owls”

New Year ’s Day and we didn’t get up until after 9 AM. A very quiet evening and a long sleep before day 1 of my Lanark big year. The sun is up, it is very cold (-21) and very clear. It is at least 30 minutes before any birds arrive at our feeders. A lone Pigeon claims the honour of Bird #1 followed by Starlings, Goldfinch and Blue Jay. Zaza and I are planning a couple of hours searching the fields on the east end of the county for Snowy Owls. Of course being an engineer I just had to reduce the year to numbers. So I created a spreadsheet checklist for Lanark. There are 279 species possible but the total could be more depending on how many super rarities you wish to include. Next I divided them into three groups; Common = 157, Occasional (usually a few are seen each year) = 47, and rarities =75. This means a target of 200 is a tall order but I believe in tall orders so here we go. After that I created a 3 month target list for January through March which has 61 birds which I intend to concentrate on. Of course the real enjoyment is to forget the numbers and wander the county enjoying whatever presents itself.

Steaming cups of tea (640x385)

Zaza and I packed up tea and Christmas goodies and headed out for a 3 hour foray. We wandered through the side streets of Carleton Place looking for the Coopers Hawk in town to no avail so we headed down Cavanagh to Appleton Side Road. A small flock of 10 Snow Buntings were on the road near the intersection which seems to be a locale where I often see them. We headed north to farm fields on the east side of Appleton Side Road north of Hamilton Side Road. This is the western edge of the Ottawa Valley and after this the large open fields drop off dramatically. I had one Snowy here both on Dec 30 and 31st but today nothing. We circled the area 3 times with no luck. So onto to Almonte, where we enjoyed a Raven gliding effortlessly with its large wedge tail. We headed for the open water near the Barley Mow where we found one Common Merganser. A local stopped to ask if it was a duck and said “Now – Will it be alright out there!” I assured her it would.

Common Merganser Almonte (640x585)

From there we headed west along Wolf Grove Road hoping to spot any Grosbeaks or Crossbills with no luck. Turning north onto Union Hall Road we picked up a couple of Robins and an ambitious Black Squirrel dragging a corn cob across the road to his lair. It is a well treed area with the occasional majestic eastern White Pine looking like it could be in a “Group of Seven” painting.

White Pine Union Hall Road (640x617)

Hoping against hope we headed back to the Appleton Side Road fields for one last ditch attempt at finding a Snowy but with no luck. Discouraged we pulled into the old feed store lot at Hwy 7 and Ashton Side Road, parked and settled down for tea and biscotti. A flurry of emails from Arnie Simpson alerted us to Snowy Owls on the south side of Hwy 7 less than a kilometer away. After three tries up and down Hwy 7, I started pulling away from the shoulder to go home when Zaza spotted one flying and it landing atop a light standard close by. A beautiful first year female by colouration. Arnie saw three Snowy in all. Zaza and I returned home to end a successful first day.

Snowy Owl Hwy 7 (640x633)

I next expect to post around the third week of January before we go south for a week.

Adios amigos

Iain and Zaza


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