Sarsaparilla Trail in the Late Fall

Red-breated Nuthatch

I never tire of visiting Sarsaparilla Trail. It is a short trail, which means I can spend as little as half an hour there and still have a good look around; however, I usually spend at least an hour there, more if there are a lot of birds on the pond or chickadees to feed.

It is a peaceful place. Because it’s such a small trail, I usually don’t encounter many people there, especially very early in the morning at this time of year when the temperature is hovers around 0°C and there is still frost on the grass. The chickadees eagerly seek me out, often followed by the nuthatches, Blue Jays and squirrels, and I can talk to them without worrying about what anybody thinks.

I stopped there on Saturday after an unfruitful search for some winter finches to photograph. As usual, I left a handful of seed on the bench at the entrance to the woods. I didn’t get very far before encountering a Hairy Woodpecker working on a fallen tree and a Red Squirrel munching on a cone.

Red Squirrel

As I was photographing the squirrel I heard the unmistakeable sound of Bohemian Waxwings flying overhead. I looked up in time to see them land on top of a tree by the picnic shelter; I followed a deer path through the woods and out into the open where I took a good look at them. There must have been about 80 birds altogether, and they had found some berries at the top of the tree. They gorged themselves for only a little while before flying off again; when they flew, I heard the call of a Pine Grosbeak as well. Later, I heard a Common Redpoll calling as it flew over the trail. The redpoll and the Bohemian Waxwings were new species for my Sarsaparilla list.

I resumed my walk through the woods but didn’t find anything of interest until I reached the boardwalk. There I found the usual chickadees and a White-breasted Nuthatch searching for food, so I put some more seed on top of the boardwalk rail while I scanned the pond.

Black-capped Chickadee

The pond was completely frozen. All the waterfowl had vanished, with the exception of two Canada Geese flying overhead. There was no sign of life in the marsh; it looks like I’ll have to wait until spring for it to come alive again.

In the meantime, the chickadees continued to fly in and take a seed (or two, when they could manage to fit them both in their mouth!) from the boardwalk rail. Since it’s been a while since I’ve photographed any chickadees, I hung around for a while and took pictures each time one landed on the rail.

Black-capped Chickadee

Three Blue Jays saw the activity and flew in to check it out; this is one of the few trails where I’ve actually had these birds follow me while walking around the woods. Every time I stopped to feed the chickadees, one or two would land on a tree branch above my head and wait for me to toss them some peanuts. Then, when I moved on and stopped to feed another group, the Blue Jays would fly in and land on another tree branch close by! I always reward them when I can.

Blue Jay

The Red-breasted Nuthatch is another friendly bird that has learned to view humans as a source of food. I’ve had these guys follow me around as well, preferring to take the seed from my hand rather than from the rock or bench where I usually leave some for the chickadees. Two of them came to take advantage of the seed I had put out, a male and a female.

Red-breasted Nuthatch (female)

According to Ron Pittaway’s Winter Finch Forecast, a widespread cone crop failure in the Northeast has resulted the departure of a large number of Red-breasted Nuthatches from the province this past summer. He predicted that most of these irruptive birds will leave the eastern half of the province for the winter, but some will probably remain in northwestern Ontario where cone crops are much better. Apparently the two nuthatches I found at Sarsaparilla weren’t informed of this; it will be interesting to see if these two remain here the entire winter. Given that Red-breasted Nuthatches migrate southward earlier than many irruptive species, leaving in July and reaching their southernmost point by September or October, it seems likely that these two will stay.

Red-breasted Nuthatch (female)

I was happy to get photos of both the male and the female, as most of my photos tend to be of males. The male has bright, bold colours compared to the female; his chest is a bright, burnt-orange while his cap and eyeline are black. In contrast, the female’s colours are muted; her cap is a soft gray-blue colour, her breast a pale orange.

Red-breasted Nuthatch (male)

Normally I find it difficult to photograph these birds when I’m feeding them, as they usually take what they want and then fly off quickly. These two were not in a big rush to fly off with their bounty, but instead lingered long enough for me to get some photos of them sitting still for a second or two.

Red-breasted Nuthatch (male)

In this photo the Blue Jay seems to be looking at me as if to say, “Yes, but where are the peanuts?!” It didn’t stop him from flying off with the sunflower seeds! You can see the ice-covered pond in the background.

Blue Jay

While feeding the birds I became aware of the sound of several Dark-eyed Juncos calling. When I looked up I saw about ten of them hopping about on the ground, eventually coming onto the boardwalk in their search for food. Although they typically prefer millet prefer over sunflower seeds, I scattered some seed on the ground for them. However, they are skittish birds, and immediately flew back into the woods. A Red Squirrel seized the opportunity to move in and steal their food.

Dark-eyed Junco

Eventually the two White-breasted Nuthatches lurking in the woods flew out onto the boardwalk to take some seed, too. They were too quick for a photo, perhaps because they are more wary than their smaller cousins and less inclined to linger. Because White-breasted Nuthatches are found mainly in deciduous forests and do not depend on conifer seeds in winter the way Red-breasted Nuthatches do, they are not migratory and do not irrupt south with the Red-breasted Nuthatches. I was happy to spend some time with both, as well as the other birds that call Sarsaparilla Trail home during the winter.

14 thoughts on “Sarsaparilla Trail in the Late Fall

  1. I love that area but don’t go as often as I’d like. So, inspired by your tales I visited today. I played hide and seek with a pair of shy Pileated Woodpeckers. I did all the seeking. The Red-breasted Nuthatches were quite aggressive wanting their toll as were the chicadees. The White-breasted Nuthatches were content to eat of the ground. The absolute highlight for me was a first time event. I had a Blue Jay take peanuts from my hand. He/she watched me for almost an hour…and I watched him/her too. Jays are intelligent and I thought if I was patient then surely the jay would see from the other birds that I was no threat. After exercising almost all my patients a jay flew in and knocked the peanuts to the ground, flew down and grabbed one, and then perched close by. I couldn’t believe I missed the shot but it took me completely by surprise. Same thing for peanut strike number two. Again, the jay came from behind this time and grabbed a nut and was off. I was incredulous that I had no photo proof. Undaunted I waited and waited and finally it came in again and this time I was lucky enough to capture it on film. I’ve had the much bolder Gray Jay land on my hand but they are known for it. Blue Jays are often so wary and skittish I thought it highly unlikely. But now I have a new species for my “landing on hand” list.

    • I saw your photos on Facebook – that is so awesome! As I’ve mentioned, they do follow me around the trail here, so they are clearly used to humans and know that we are a food source. Next time I visit I’ll have to try feeding them from my hand!

  2. What nice pictures you got, Gillian! With the Sony Cybershot, too? I think you must have been very lucky to get some patient birds. Saw a flock of juncos today when out for my walk. Always enjoy these fellows. Beautiful blog you have here. (I am experimenting with different layouts while on my blogging break.)

    • Thanks Kathy! Yes, all the photos were taken with my Sony Cybershot HX-1. I spent about half an hour just watching the birds come in to feed, and took as many pictures as I could. I got a lot of tail-feathers-flying-out-of-the-frame, “well-it-was-here-just-a-second-ago!” shots too! I like seeing the juncos, too. When they carpet the forest floor in large flocks I always know the season is changing!

    • Thanks prairiebirder! I first found your blog when looking for information about birding in Alberta (I was out there in July). It’s always nice to find blogs and meet people who are just as passionate about nature!

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