by Bob Bracken and Christina Lewis
[Also published in the newsletter of the Ontario Field Ornithologists, June 2000, 18(2)]
For birdwatchers not familiar with the Ottawa area, this 5-kilometre stretch of shoreline and conservation area bordering Lac Des Chenes and the Ottawa River represents, without question, the best year-round birding hotspot in Ottawa.
The following sites form a corridor of contiguous and heterogenous parkscape, heavily utilized by migratory bird species. All of the areas described are public lands, and access is available all year long.
1. The Britannia Conservation Area (BCA)
This isolated island of “greenspace”, located within city limits, can offer incredible bird-watching during migration. Located at a constriction of the Ottawa River (the Deschênes Rapids), it is an obvious landmark with a great diversity of habitats. The pond (Mud Lake), the mature white pine stand and deciduous woods, and the surrounding urban landscape, all combine to make this a magnet for tired migrants. To date, 248 species of birds have been found in, or seen from, the BCA; this represents 74% of all spp. recorded in the Ottawa-Hull naturalists’ area (the 50 kilometer radius from the Peace Tower). Additionally, 52 species are known to have nested here over the years. For a single site less than one square kilometer in area, the BCA has hosted a truly remarkable number and diversity of birds!
The BCA can be reached by taking Pinecrest Road (exit 129) off the Hwy 417. Go north on Pinecrest, then turn right (east) onto Richmond Road. After Richmond crosses Carling Avenue, turn left (north) onto Poulin Avenue. Poulin intersects with Britannia Road. Turning right onto Britannia will take you to Cassels Street. Britannia Road and Cassels Street form the BCA’s western and northern boundaries respectively, and a National Capital Commission (NCC) bicycle path borders it to the south. Parking is easy anywhere along Cassels; there are, however, no facilities in the CA.
The pond (Mud Lake)
Along Cassels, there is a good overview of Mud Lake (photo below). Large numbers of ducks stage here in the fall. All of Ottawa’s puddle duck species can be seen, and a Eurasian Wigeon returned here for several consecutive years. The pond also attracts herons. Great Blue’s are fequently seen along the pond’s edge; check the dead trees for Black-crowned Night Herons from mid-summer to early fall. A Little Blue Heron was present in August 1998.
On the north side of Cassels, there is an elevated strip of land known as “the ridge”. A trail runs along the crest, then follows the shore of the Ottawa River around the grounds of the Filtration Plant. This ridge is one of the best places to start your birding day in spring and fall. Many migrants arrive first thing in the morning, and repeatedly circulate through the BCA in a north-south direction, winding up at the river. Thrushes, vireos, warblers, and sparrows can be well-represented here.
The woods and fields
A turnstile marks the entrance to a trail at the northwest corner of the pond, which leads to a network of well-used footpaths offering easy access to the many habitats found here.
A counter-clockwise tour of the BCA follows:
Upon entering the trail, a path to your right leads to an old field with grassy areas and shrubs, mainly Lonicera (honeysuckle), Rhamnus (buckthorn), and Rhus typhina (staghorn sumac). This is a good area for flycatchers, thrushes and sparrows.
The main north-south trail continues south through a hardwood stand of maple, oak and ash. Depending on the date of your visit, look carefully in the honeysuckle thickets bordering the pond for skulkers, including Mourning, Wilson’s and Canada Warblers. Connecticut Warbler, a rarity for Ottawa, has been seen twice in this habitat.
Further south, you will enter an impressive stand of mature white pine. Wood Duck, Brown Creeper and Pine Warbler nest here. Recently (since 1997 at least), both Merlin and Cooper’s Hawk have bred in this area in consecutive years.
A path running parallel to the fence marking the western boundary of the CA should also be covered. The east-west trail along the south side of the pond can also be good, but is typically less productive.
Remember, early in the morning, most of the birds move repeatedly back and forth in a north-south direction. Take your time — on good days after a fallout, a broad variety of songbirds of every family (except Shrike) can be found ANYWHERE along these trails. A total of 34 species of warblers have been found in the BCA, including (rare in Ottawa): Yellow-throated, Prairie, Cerulean, Prothonotary, Worm-eating, Connecticut, and Yellow-breasted Chat.
At this point, you can return to Cassels via one of the alternate north-south trails (as most birders do), or you can continue on this counter-clockwise route by taking the NCC path along the southern edge. You can access (through a turnstile) the fields in the southeastern portion of the BCA to search for scrub-land birds; this approach will also lead to other views of the pond. Further east, again along the bicycle path before the settling ponds, another turnstile near Pinecrest Creek indicates a right-of-way which takes you north through a narrow patch of scrub-land, bordered by a silver maple swamp. This area can be good for thrushes, vireos and warblers.
At the northeastern tip of the Filtration Plant grounds (known as “Britannia Point”), there is an excellent vantage of the Ottawa River and the base of the Des Chenes Rapids. From late May through June, and again in the fall, this part of the river offers the best gull-viewing in Ottawa, with the possible exception of the Trail Road landfill site. The appearance of several emergent insect species (e.g. mayflies) attracts large numbers of larids. Ring-billed Gull is, of course, abundant, but many Bonaparte’s and the odd rarity can be seen. Nineteen of Ottawa’s 21 gull and tern species have been sighted here. Both Franklin’s and Laughing Gull were seen from “the Point” in May 1996. Other records include Black-headed, Little and Sabine’s Gull, Caspian and Forster’s Tern, as well as all 3 species of jaegers. Look also for Red-throated Loon, which can be present on the river during October and November.
Britannia Point happens to be the only location in southern Ontario where Arctic Tern occurs annually. The best time to see this rare inland migrant is during the last week of May and the first two weeks of June. Typically, more than two are seen at a time, with a high count of 14 on May 29, 1999. Weather is the key factor to success; strong winds and/or mid-day rain seem to be the best conditions — no guarantees, but when Arctic Terns are discovered, they often linger for more than a day.
The grounds surrounding the Filtration Plant offer yet another good view of the pond. Rarities seen here in the past include Cassin’s and Gray Kingbird.
The rapids themselves are best viewed from the Britannia Yacht Club (permission is required from the management). From spring through fall, when the river is low, the rocks can be good for interesting shorebirds. Below the rapids, especially in May, June, and September, good numbers of larids can be seen (see Britannia Point, above). Barrow’s Goldeneye is semi-regular here in winter, and there are 3 records of Harlequin Duck.
On December 6, 1995, a Thick-billed Murre appeared here briefly (It would no doubt have stayed longer, if it hadn’t been taken by a Gyrfalcon).
2. Lakeside Gardens
This park-land environment can prove interesting during the autumn months, especially October to November. There is a sand beach (public swimming in summer) and a break-wall extending out some distance into Britannia Bay.
To reach this site, from the BCA, take Britannia Road south and turn right (west) onto Carling. The first street you will encounter is Greenview Avenue. Turning right (north) on Greenview will lead to a large parking lot with public facilities.
Although not generally productive in terms of rarities, Lakeside Gardens offers an excellent vantage of Britannia Bay and Lac Des Chenes. Large numbers of waterfowl, particularly Canada Geese and the common puddle ducks, congregate here in the fall. Look for Snow Goose, Brant, and the rare Greater White-fronted Goose. Scanning the water in late fall can turn up loons and grebes; some of the sea ducks (scoters and Oldsquaw) are easily viewed from here as well.
The beach is a good area for roosting gulls, and whereas not productive for shorebirds, it has been a site for Purple Sandpiper. The break-wall has also attracted Purple’s, as well as a Northern Wheatear in October 1995.
3. Scrivens Street
Continuing further west long Carling will bring you to Scrivens Street, at the second traffic light below the hill. Turn right onto Scrivens (there is a Harvey’s on the corner), drive to the end, and park near the bicycle path. Please be mindful — don’t park near private lane-ways.
At this location, scan the sand flats that extend west to Andrew Haydon Park and east to the break-wall at Lakeside Gardens. In late summer through early fall, there is an extensive and rich feeding area for shorebirds and puddle ducks. Most of the shorebirds that can be viewed from Andrew Haydon Park can also be seen from this site; a Marbled Godwit spent several days here in June 1998.
Under certain weather conditions, at different times of the day, the birds frequently shift from one location to another. Any visit for shorebird viewing along the Ottawa River in the fall should include a stop here, as you may miss something by checking only the Ottawa Beach end of the flats.
4. Andrew Haydon Park East (Ottawa Beach)
Ottawa Beach is best defined as the narrow riparian zone with extensive emergent marsh vegetation, from east of Graham Creek to a small viewing area surrounded by a split-log blind.
Access is from Carling Avenue, west from site #3, or by taking Richmond Road east or west to Bayshore Drive, then Bayshore north to Carling. Shortly after the Carling/Bayshore intersection, continue west along Carling to a small parkland with play structures and a view of the Ottawa River. The facilities are open until early fall, and parking is available until the first snowfall.
This is, without question, one of the best single locations for shore/water birding in Ottawa, and has been the scene of many rarities. Generally not a productive area in the spring, as the high water levels preclude the emergence of the sand flats, it is nonetheless a good spot to scan for loons, grebes, bay and sea ducks. Under the right conditions, a good assortment of migrant songbirds can be found here in the cottonwoods and the surrounding lowland vegetation.
The water level of the Ottawa River can fluctuate widely throughout the seasons, and is controlled from the Des Chats power dam, located approximately 40 kilometers upstream, just outside of Fitzroy Harbour. Depending on the number of rainfall events, etc., the river may or may not be very low by mid-summer.
Whereas Britannia is a dynamite place to visit in both spring and fall, Ottawa Beach can be fantastic during late summer and the autumn months, for a variety of reasons:
From September through early December, search for loons and grebes out on the lake; 30 of Ottawa’s 35 waterfowl species have been found here. During October-November, many thousands of Canada Geese stage here, and you never know what other surprises you may find with them. Richardson’s Goose (the Mallard-sized subspecies) and Greater White-fronted Goose are semi-annual. Snow Geese are typically present, as well as Brant during their brief flight time.
By late summer, the exposed shoreline of Britannia Bay offers a rich feeding and resting area. Of Ottawa’s 38 species of shorebirds, 35 have been recorded here. Under ideal conditions (e.g. northwest winds, late summer downpours), these flats can be carpeted with plovers and sandpipers.
This is a good place to see American Golden Plover, and during heavy rains in August, numbers of Whimbrel have landed here. A good location for Red Knot (August-September), and during peak flight times (late August-early September) Western Sandpiper can occasionally be discovered among the large numbers of Semipalmateds. Piping Plover, Willet, Buff-breasted Sandpiper, and Red Phalarope, have all occurred at Ottawa Beach. A recent rarity for Ottawa was our second record of Spotted Redshank, on August 21, 1998.
Post-breeding Merlins and Peregrine Falcons also frequently use this Ottawa Beach – Scrivens corridor for hunting. Peregrines have been nesting in downtown Ottawa since 1997.
Similarly, if the sandbar is extensive, good numbers of loafing larids gather here, including Iceland, Lesser Black-backed and Glaucous Gulls. Rarities have included Ottawa’s second Mew Gull.
Although not as productive as Britannia in the fall, a nice assortment of migrant passerines may be encountered at Ottawa Beach. From late September through early October, it would not be unusual to find half a dozen species of sparrows. In 1976, the first modern record of Nelson’s Sharp-tailed Sparrow was banded at this site, and since that time, it has been semi-annual. Look for this secretive species by walking through the Spartina pectinata (tall cord grass) and Lythrum salicaria (purple loosestrife) near the sand spit.
NOTE: Rubber boots are a good idea, at any time of year, for exploring Ottawa Beach. Also, if you visit during good (i.e. BAD) weather and see no birds, visit the Scrivens site (#3) and return here later.
5. Andrew Haydon Park West
The remainder of Andrew Haydon Park, located north of the traffic light intersection of Carling and Acres Road, is a manicured parkscape of lawn, with scattered trees and artificial ponds. It has not proved very productive for land birds, but has an expansive view of Lac Des Chenes. From anywhere along the river’s edge, scan for loons, grebes and waterfowl in the late fall. Large numbers of immature Ring-billed Gulls also concentrate around the ponds in fall; although no rarities have yet been found among them, this is a good opportunity to check for any potentials.
6. Dick Bell Park
Proceeding still further west on Carling, you will very shortly encounter the Nepean Sailing Club on your right. The sign says Dick Bell Park, and there is public parking. [View map]
Again, this is a site to visit in the fall.. A good diversity of loafing gulls can be seen on the docks during November and early December before freeze-up.
Walking along the break-wall to the lighthouse, check the numbers of scaup for interesting Aythya species (Redhead and Canvasback are both scarce in Ottawa), as well as scoters. Picking through the sometimes large rafts of Common Goldeneye requires patience, but you may be rewarded with a Barrow’s. Harlequin Duck has been seen here once. Be sure to scan out onto the lake for jaegers and unusual larids (e.g. Black-legged Kittiwake) in October-November.
The reason most birders visit Dick Bell Park late in the fall, is to search for Purple Sandpiper; this is the most consistent location in Ottawa to find that species. In late October through November, during strong northwest winds, check the break-wall carefully. The rocks are large, and these birds have a habit of hiding between them.
In addition to being easily accessible by car, all of the above sites are connected by an NCC bicycle path. This path can be used as a conduit for visiting any or all of these sites on two rather than four wheels, or on foot for a full day’s outing. All areas, except the BCA trails, are accessible by wheelchair. Any mode of transportation will do, to cover the best bird-watching strip in Ottawa!
Overnight accommodations are available along Carling Avenue, and there are numerous restaurants nearby, ranging from fast-food to fine dining. Refer to current tourist guides (e.g., the CAA’s Ontario Tour Book), and be sure to call the Ottawa Field-Naturalists’ Club Bird Status Line (613 860-9000) for the most recent bird sightings. The Environment Canada Weather Line (613 998-3439) provides recorded weather forecasts and frequent updates throughout the day.
Acknowledgements: We wish to thank Bernie Ladouceur for his assistance with statistical information.