The month of May is one of the most interesting and prolific times to be taking wildlife pictures at the cottage, with migratory birds returning, foliage emerging on trees and shrubs but not yet blocking sightings of birds, early spring flowers blooming and insect activity suddenly exploding. Unfortunately, because of the pandemic restrictions this year we changed our usual approach and did not move to the cottage at the beginning of May, but spent the month (and longer) at our home in Ottawa. This resulted in a disappointed cottage-wildlife photographer focusing his camera lens on the plants and animals around our city backyard. We are fortunate that our property backs onto a National Capital Commission forest and so we see a diverse range of urban and forest-dwelling creatures, although not as broad a range as we experience at our cottage on White Lake. We wanted to share just some of the birds that have visited our backyard in the city during May.
The spring thaw creates a vernal pond in the forest behind our city home. This pond attracts couples of mallard ducks every year and for the first time last year it also attracted wood ducks. This May we enjoyed several wood duck sightings. The breeding male is distinctive, with its ornately marked green head with long, white-bordered crest, red eyes, reddish-orange beak, orange legs and feet, chestnut breast with small white specks, and yellowish-brown flanks. This average-sized member of the dabbling duck family grows to a length of 45 centimeters feeding mainly on seeds found on the bottom of shallow ponds among trees. Wood Ducks, especially females, are much less tolerant of human presence than mallards so it was a challenge to capture even this photo of a male.
The pileated woodpecker, which grows to 48 centimeters in length, is the largest member of the woodpecker family in our region. We regularly see and hear these birds, both at our city home and at the cottage, year-round. Each bird requires 40 hectares of mature forest as a home territory where they drill characteristic rectangular-shaped holes as they hunt for insects living inside the trunks of trees. Both the male and female have a bright red crest on their heads although the male’s extends forward to the bill. He also has a red “moustache”. This female was exploring the cedar tree that anchors the clothes line in our backyard. Fortunately she did not detect any burrowing insects so did not start drilling into our clothesline pole.
Another, smaller woodpecker that returns to our region in May is the yellow-bellied sapsucker. Males and females can grow to a length of 20 centimeters, the distinguishing feature being that males have a red cap and ‘chin’ while females have a red cap and white ‘chin’. These birds live in deciduous and mixed forests where they drill parallel horizontal rows or ‘wells’ in the trunks of trees. These ‘wells’ fill with sap which the birds lap up with their tongue, and attract insects which the birds eat. However, this female was pictured foraging in the forest leaf litter, presumably for insects.
While our field guides list the black-throated blue warbler as common, this May was the first time we have spotted or photographed one in the city. This small bird, which grows to a length of 13 centimeters, is typically found in the shady understory within woodlands. This male was observed in the branches of trees adjacent to our vernal pond. The male is distinctive with its blue back, white belly and black face and throat. The females are more difficult to identify as they are a plain, drab olive colour.
Another first-ever sighting anywhere for us this May was a Swainson’s thrush. Our field guides list it as a common resident of mature mixed forests, where it feeds on insects, spiders, snails and berries both on the ground and in trees. This is an average-sized member of the thrush family, growing to 18 centimeters in length. Another of our field guides noted these birds are very vocal during feeding but we did not hear a sound from this individual while it was foraging in our backyard.
So, we were reminded of an important lesson as we isolated ourselves at our city home during May. Wherever you are, if you take the time to look around you can be rewarded by all sorts of interesting sightings.
We found the following four field guides helpful in preparing this article: David Allen Sibley’s The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America; Chris G. Earley’s Warblers of the Great Lakes Region & Eastern North America, and his Waterfowl of Eastern North America; and, Andy Bezener, Gregory Kennedy, Krista Kagume and Carmen Adams’ Lone Pine Compact Guide to Ontario Birds.