I spent two lunch hours at Hurdman last week, and found some amazing birds each time. On Monday, a couple of American Tree Sparrows were feeding in the grass near the entrance to the woods; these are the first ones I’ve seen there this year, and were probably just stopping in on their way north to their breeding grounds. Also new for the year were a pair of Hooded Mergansers sleeping in a quiet bay along the river and at least three Ruby-crowned Kinglets singing energetically. In the woods, several Dark-eyed Juncos and White-throated Sparrows were singing as they foraged in the leaf litter.
Despite the winter storm today that has coated everything with a new layer of ice and snow, the past week has given me hope that we have finally turned the corner. American Robins, Red-winged Blackbirds and Common Grackles have been back in large numbers for a couple of weeks now, and I see many of each species on my 1.2 km walk to the bus stop each morning. Since April 4th I’ve managed to add five new species to my year list: Song Sparrow, Great Blue Heron, Wood Duck, Golden-crowned Kinglet and Fox Sparrow.
Deb and I went to Algonquin Park on Saturday, and we couldn’t have picked a better day to go. We drove west under a bright blue sky, and while it was only -4°C when we left, the warm sunshine quickly heated the day to a balmy 8°C. We started the day with a drive up Opeongo Road which was an adventure in itself – the road was badly plowed with deep ruts, and the rising temperature made the surface slippery. We didn’t see or hear anything until we got to the gate, where we found piles of sunflower seeds left on various snow banks. Several Black-capped Chickadees, American Red Squirrels and Blue Jays were eating their fill; a single Gray Jay was also looking for handouts, and spent most of its time approaching the people coming and going rather than sampling the seeds left in the snow. Three Common Redpolls also flew in, while a single Pine Grosbeak seemed content to pick up grit from the parking lot. Then I heard a Boreal Chickadee calling from the edge of the parking area. His song is a slower, raspier version of the Black-capped Chickadee’s chick-a-dee-dee-dee. Deb managed to find it bouncing among the branches of a spruce tree, a beautiful little bird dressed in rufous and brown.
Owl baiting is the feeding of live mice, usually bought from pet stores, to wild owls with the purpose of obtaining photographs of the owl in flight or making the kill. It is not “feeding” the owl, otherwise people would simply let a whole box of mice loose in the field every day and leave, allowing the owl to find and catch them on its own. Instead, the mice are released one at a time, allowing those photographing it to capture dramatic images of the owl flying in and swooping down on its prey.
In early January, four Great Gray Owls were discovered on NCC land near Green’s Creek in Ottawa’s east end. Although the presence of these birds was kept quiet at first, eventually a local photographer saw or heard about them and sent a barrage of emails to Ontbirds which not only gave precise details on how to get to the owls, but also a Google map of the area, a link to the Ottawa Citizen in which he had been quoted, and, of course, links to his photos. The result of this email campaign was entirely predictable: dozens of people began showing up at the site, and the baiting began.
Owls have a power to fascinate us that no other birds do. They seem to dwell in a realm that lies somewhere between the natural and the mythological, representing a wilderness untamed and untouched by human hands. When you chance upon one and stare into the solemn, unsettling eyes of a Barred Owl or the bright, glaring yellow eyes of a Great Horned Owl, you know you are in the presence of something utterly inhuman – and inhumanly beautiful. These sleek, silent, feathered predators captivate our imaginations, possibly because they are so infrequently seen, and possibly because of the aura of mystery that surrounds them…especially those that dwell in the woods where their cryptic camouflage and nocturnal habits make them difficult to spot.
While some eastern North American owls remain on their breeding territories all year round, including the Great Horned Owl, Eastern Screech Owl and Barred Owl, other species are migratory and may be found more easily in the fall and winter as they move through urban and suburban areas to their wintering grounds. These species, which include Long-eared Owl, Short-eared Owl, Northern Saw-whet Owl, and the four northern species – Snowy Owl, Northern Hawk Owl, Great Gray Owl, and Boreal Owl – typically move south in response to food shortages on their breeding grounds or, in the case of last winter’s spectacular Snowy Owl irruption, a population boom that led to an increase in competition for the same food resources. Younger owls, having no territories of their own, were pushed much farther south than normal in order to find a place to spend the winter.
On Saturday, January 27, 2013, the Ottawa Field-Naturalists’ Club (OFNC) trip to Amherst Island finally took place after being delayed twice, the first time because of deer hunting in Owl Woods and the second time because of the weather. We couldn’t have asked for better weather for trip; although it was -20°C when we left, it warmed up to a beautiful -7°C with periods of both sun and cloud. The deep freeze had ended just in time.
We left at 7:30 am in order to catch the 10:30 ferry, stopping briefly at the Mallorytown service center to refuel our cars and our bodies. We saw at least three Red-tailed Hawks, one flock of Wild Turkeys, and two porcupines sleeping in a deciduous tree on the drive down.