Even though the winter solstice is still two weeks away, there’s no use in denying it: winter is here. It doesn’t seem fair that we had a late spring this year, and now we’re having an early winter. There are thin, crusty patches of snow on the ground in places, and we’ve had some really cold days lately – so cold, that on Sunday I didn’t want to go out birding.
Astronomical winter begins on December 21st this year, the shortest day of the year. However, when it comes to birding, there’s something to be said for defining the seasons meteorologically. Meteorological seasons occur in three-month blocks, just like astronomical seasons, but they start on the 1st day of March, June, September and December. In this case, winter begins on December 1st and ends on February 28th, the coldest three-month period of the year in the northern hemisphere. This corresponds to the “winter birding season”, when the fewest number of species are typically present in our area; and the number of species keeps dropping throughout this period, until late February when the birding doldrums hit and it seems as though spring migration will never begin.
Last Sunday Deb and I met up and did some west-end birding. Despite waking up to a dense fog, our plan was to visit the river and the Trail Road landfill for gulls and waterfowl. We did both of those, although we also spent some time driving along the back roads south and west of Ottawa, too. At our first stop, Andrew Haydon Park, we found a number of gulls standing on the watery ice that covered the ponds. For the first time this season I spotted a few Herring Gulls among the more numerous Ring-billed Gulls. There was one large, brownish juvenile on the western pond and at least half a dozen adults on the eastern pond. Two adult Great Black-backed Gulls bobbed on the river’s surface beyond the ponds, although shortly after we found them they took to the air and flew directly toward us, then disappeared over Carling Avenue.
I’ve been waiting for a sunny day to go back to Strathcona Park to get some better photographs of the Harlequin Duck, and on Friday that day finally came. It was cold, though; only about -5°C, and the wind made it feel worse. I didn’t intend on staying out too long, but as I was at the mercy of the bus schedule, I ended up staying out longer than I had planned.
When I arrived I was amazed by all the Canada Geese feeding on the lawn – the flock contained over 100 birds. I scanned them for Cackling and Greater White-fronted Geese, to no avail.
Even though winter is still a full calendar month away, this year it came early to eastern Ontario. On Sunday, November 16th we got our first real snow of the season. It came down on and off all day, heavy enough at times to make me question going out birding, though it didn’t really accumulate as the temperature warmed up to 0°C in the afternoon.
Saturday was the much better day for birding, though I didn’t stay out too long as it was cold but sunny. I started off with a walk around the ponds by my place, but the sub-zero overnight temperature had resulted in ice forming on about half of the ponds. As a result, there were few birds of interest around – a single Dark-eyed Junco, a small flock of goldfinches, and a Northern Cardinal were feeding in the weedy field, while three Common Mergansers were the only interesting waterfowl on the water. Four Snow Buntings flying over were also great to see – this was the first time I’d seen them over the ponds, bringing my list up to 61 species.
After a couple of days in the low single digits, Remembrance Day started out cool but quickly warmed up to a beautiful, sunny 14°C. Warm days in November are rare, so I took advantage of the weather and went out to Hurdman Park for a walk. I was hoping to find a couple of lingering migrants, or perhaps some Bohemian Waxwings or winter finches, and I thought I definitely had a chance of finding one more Autumn Meadowhawk. The nights haven’t been too cold yet, and there haven’t been any heavy overnight frosts, either, so it seemed likely that one or two of these hardy dragonflies might be out enjoying the final warm day of the season.
The weather forecast last weekend didn’t look too promising. Some snow, some sun, some cold mornings; I wasn’t sure I wanted to go out, but the lure of the outdoors overcame any initial reluctance. Owls are moving through Ottawa on their way to their wintering grounds, so I thought I would spend Saturday morning in the woods looking for the elusive Long-eared, diminutive Saw-whet, and majestic Great Horned Owls, all of which I needed for my year list. After that I planned to go up to the river in the hopes of seeing some scoters, loons, grebes, etc. The snow was supposed to start around 1:00 so that would give me plenty of time to find some good birds.
November arrived cold and blustery. I wore my winter coat for the first time and was glad to have it as the wind was pretty chilly, even though it was still a couple of degrees above zero. We were supposed to get a mix of rain and snow on Saturday, November 1st, but as the precipitation didn’t materialize I was able to get in a good morning of birding. I started my weekend with a stop at the storm water management ponds by my place. The Great Blue Heron was still there, as were four Hooded Mergansers and a female-type Common Merganser. I wasn’t able to pick out any Cackling or Snow Geese amongst the 500 or so Canada Geese, but five Green-winged Teals at the very back of the pond were a nice surprise; this is only the second time I’ve seen this species here.