Northern Birds

Last weekend was a great one for seeing a variety of northern birds moving through – though, for various reasons, not for photography. Earlier in the week, a Northern Hawk Owl had been discovered near the Ottawa airport. This northern species only appears in southern Ontario during the winter when food becomes scarce in its normal range; I last saw this species in January 2011 when one set up a winter territory near Brennan’s Hill, Quebec. I drove out to Bowesville Road just south of the airport early Saturday morning but had no luck finding the Hawk Owl (apparently it waited until after I left to put in an appearance). I did, however, see a group of Common Redpolls, a Snowy Owl resting in the middle of a green field, and a Rough-legged Hawk in the same area. The Rough-legged Hawk appeared to be keeping an eye on a group of Wild Turkeys feeding right below the tree in which it was sitting; both the hawk and the Snowy Owl were season firsts for me.

Snowy Owl
Ottawa, January 2007


After leaving the airport I stopped by the Lime Kiln Trail to see if the Black-backed Woodpecker was still around. A Northern Shrike was sitting in a tree in the marsh just beyond the parking lot; another first of the season for me! These masked songbirds-of-prey can often be found perching in the tops of bare trees in open areas, hunting for prey. They don’t like being watched however, and tend to fly off as soon as they realize those binoculars are pointed at them. To this day I am still hoping for my first good photo of this species.

At the burn site I saw one White-winged Crossbill and one Black-backed Woodpecker – the male this time. He flew right toward me, showing off his bright yellow crown patch, and then landed high up on a tree behind me. I attempted to track him down, but he disappeared when I became engaged in conversation with a pair of chickadees and a Blue Jay. And, as usual, this conversation resulted in me handing over all my seed. When I turned my attention back to the Black-backed Woodpecker, I discovered he had flown off while my back was turned and was now nowhere to be seen.

The following day I visited the Arboretum and the Fletcher Wildlife Garden hoping to find some berry-loving Pine Grosbeaks and Bohemian Waxwings. I found several waxwings in the crabapple trees at the Arboretum; about 20 Cedar and 20 Bohemian Waxwings were feeding on the berries. Several robins and starlings were in the vicinity as well, but there was no sign of any Pine Grosbeaks.

Bohemian Waxwing
Ottawa, March 2012

At the Fletcher Wildlife Garden, the only finches I saw at first were House Finches. Then a large flock of Bohemian Waxwings flew in and landed at the top of one of the tall trees by the Interpretive Building. I heard a different call among the soft twittering and trilling of the Bohemians but couldn’t immediately place it; then I recalled visiting Algonquin Park last winter and hearing the bright, cheerful calls of the Evening Grosbeaks at the feeders behind the Visitor’s Center. I picked out a single Evening Grosbeak among the flock, a female; this was one of the best birds of the weekend. I don’t see these colourful birds often, and I have never seen one in the city before.

Male Evening Grosbeak
Algonquin Park, March 2012

A trip to Mud Lake proved successful as well. I heard a single Snow Bunting flying over and saw another flock of Bohemian Waxwings. All the Wood Ducks seemed to have vanished, but at least four male Hooded Mergansers were sharing the lake with the geese and mallards. At the south end of the pond I saw two beavers working on a recently-built lodge. When one stopped near the edge of the water for a bite to eat I crept closer to obtain a few photographs.

Beaver at Mud Lake. Yes, that is a rim of ice at the water’s edge.

While this one was busy eating, its partner was busy bringing vegetation to the lodge. He’d swim out to one particular spot, dive beneath the water, and then swim back carrying twigs and branches in his mouth. I’m hoping they’ll survive the winter and that we’ll see some babies here in the spring!

My last great sighting of the weekend was of this Barred Owl. It’s my second one of the fall, which is amazing considering I never even saw any Barred Owls this year until the fall! I’m not going to disclose the location of this owl given that I found him along a well-known, well-used trail and given what happened to the Barred Owl at Mud Lake last month (an awful, sickening story, and one that I’m not going to repeat here; if you need to know, just Google “Barred Owl Mud Lake”).

Barred Owl

So far it’s been an amazing fall. Winter birds are arriving right on time, and the winter finch irruption predicted by Ron Pittaway is well under way, resulting in many species being seen well south of their normal range. Whether these birds will find enough food in Ottawa to keep them here for the duration of the winter, or whether they will have to keep moving south to find a good supply of food still remains to be seen.

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7 thoughts on “Northern Birds

  1. Nice post. I look forward to seeing all the northerly birds this winter though owls seem to be a mixed blessing lately. But just a small comment on the following, “This northern species only appears in southern Ontario during the winter when food becomes scarce in its normal range”. The Northern Hawk Owl has actually bred a number of times here in the Ottawa area. Once on Ridge Road in the Mer Bleu and most recently at the Alfred Bog. The young showed up on the telephone wires next to the sewage pond one day. And a few years before that we had a nest near the mine at Clayton (near Carleton Place). Hard to find in difficult habitat around here they may breed more often then we know.

    • Hi Chris,

      Thanks for the clarification. However, I take it none of these breeding records are recent; according to the Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Ontario, the Hawk Owl last bred here in 2001 after a large southward irruption during the winter of 2000-2001. By 2002, this species had retreated northward again, with no records from the southern Canadian Shield.

      While they may still breed in the area, undetected, the few instances we do know about appear to be exceptions related to the large southward movement of the birds during the previous winter. Maybe we’ll see such an irruption again this winter! (But please, no owl-baiting.)

  2. “The Rough-legged Hawk appeared to be keeping an eye on a group of Wild Turkeys”

    Now that’s an ambitious hawk!

    Love the Evening Grosbeak picture, vivid burnt orange standing out against the winter landscape.

    • Hi Suzanne! I don’t know if he was ambitious or just wary! Both he and the turkeys were gone when I checked the area two days later.

      I wish I had been able to photograph the one at the FWG but she was right above my head and the light was poor. So I borrowed this image from my trip to Algonquin. They truly are beautiful birds!

  3. Perhaps I didn’t read close enough, but did you take the pictures of these birds and animals?? If you did, I salute you mightily! My friend at book club who is a biologist for the local native American tribe, offered to share some animal photos for my blog. At least I hope she’ll follow through. Would love it if she sent some.

    • Yep, all the photos on my blog are my own, unless noted otherwise! I use a Sony Cybershot HX-1 which is a point-and-shoot with a 20x zoom; it’s amazing for situations when the bird or animal is really close.

      The first three photos are older pictures of mine, which I used because I couldn’t get any pictures of the birds I saw that weekend. The beaver and the owl photo at the end are the only two decent shots I have from that weekend.

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