Birding over the Holidays

American Wigeon

American Wigeon

I haven’t been able to get out birding as much as I had hoped over the holidays. For one thing, I didn’t have any days off except for the stat holidays; while this resulted in a four-day weekend for me, I only had the car for only three of them, and we had our typical December bad weather on two of them (including freezing rain on Boxing Day). However, my firm closed at noon on both December 23rd and 30th, so I was able to go birding right after work on both Fridays. As the weather was decent both days, I got to spend a little at places I usually don’t visit on the weekend – Hurdman and Billings Bridge.

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Backyard Birds

Cooper's Hawk

Cooper’s Hawk

The temperature dropped this weekend. With the sun rising on temperatures as low as -10°C, I didn’t feel like rushing out at daybreak to go birding. It usually takes some time for me to adjust to the cold, and after last week’s milder weather I wasn’t quite ready to bundle up in five or six layers. On Saturday I did some shopping but spent most of the day watching the birds at my feeder. During the work week, it’s dark when I leave in the morning, and dark when I get home, so I have no idea what goes on in my backyard during the day. On Saturday I was happy to have four or five Blue Jays descend upon my feeder and threw some peanuts onto the patio to keep them happy. Although they visit my yard regularly during the fall to fatten up on the peanuts I give them, they usually become scarce once the snow arrives. I also had five on November 12th, so it appears a family group is visiting together. Two juncos, five chickadees, four House Sparrows, a goldfinch, and two Mourning Doves were also in my yard or visible in the neighbour’s.

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Winter Freeze-up

Green-winged Teal

After about a week of temperatures in the double digits, on November 20th the temperature plummeted. The past week has been cold, with most days not even reaching the freezing mark. Worse, a heavy snowfall on November 20th and 21st dumped more than 10 cm on Ottawa; so even though a few trees and shrubs were still sporting green leaves, it looks like winter has begun a full month early, given that the solstice falls on December 21st this year. Even going by meteorological seasons, which uses December 1st as the start of winter, and March 1st as the beginning of spring, winter is still more than a week early. Maybe we’ll get lucky and find ourselves back in the plus-double digits on February 20th, a full month before the vernal equinox.

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Summer in November

Summer Tanager

On Monday, November 14th, a female Summer Tanager was discovered in a small field east of the large pond at Bruce Pit. This was the same field where I’d seen an American Copper butterfly several years ago and had so much fun photographing bees and beetles last August. When I woke up on Saturday I really wasn’t planning on chasing this rarity; I wanted to get to the river early and scan for loons, scoters, Long-tailed Ducks, Dunlin and Purple Sandpipers. However, a dense ice-fog put an end to any hopes of birding that morning, and I had to content myself with a single juvenile Herring Gull among the Ring-billed Gulls in the Walmart parking lot after doing some shopping.

The sky remained gray all morning, and at lunch time I checked my email and learned that the Summer Tanager had been seen in the same group of birches in the same location earlier that morning. After I ate I headed out and was happy to see that the clouds were starting to break up. The temperature was 8°C, relatively balmy after a couple of cold mornings last week, and I even saw a few flies buzzing around. I was hoping to see one last Autumn Meadowhawk for the year, but I struck out in that regard.

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The Gray Jay: Canada’s unofficial National Bird

Gray Jay

Gray Jay (2012)

Unless you’ve been committed yourself to complete isolation from the internet and news media for the past few days (in which case you probably aren’t reading my blog anyway), you have probably heard that on November 16, 2016, Canadian Geographic selected the Gray Jay as Canada’s National Bird. While this decision is not official – it needs government approval for that – the selection followed almost two years of debate, including an online round of voting open to the public, and then the choosing of the the national bird from the top five contenders by Canadian Geographic. The opinions of ornithologists, conservationists, cultural experts and indigenous peoples also played a large part in choosing the Gray Jay over the other finalists, which included iconic birds such as the Common Loon, Snowy Owl, Canada Goose, and Black-capped Chickadee. However, three of these are already provincial birds, and one of these is largely considered a pest (despite how heart-meltingly cute its goslings are).

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Nova Scotia in November

Remnants of Life

I’ve never been to Nova Scotia in the fall before, but as my fiancé Doran was planning on driving down to attend the Hal-Con Sci Fi convention in Halifax from November 4-6 I decided to join him. We left on Wednesday, November 2nd and spent the night in Edmunston as usual; I didn’t see anything really interesting until the next day while we were somewhere between Moncton and the Nova Scotia border. We were driving past a watery, marshy area next to the road when I spotted a couple of shorebirds, including what looked like a yellowlegs in flight, and a red fox slinking along the ground! Between the Nova Scotia border and Truro we saw a dark hawk with a white tail and white wing-tips hovering above the grassy shoulder of the highway. My best guess is dark morph Rough-legged Hawk, though it’s difficult to really process any field marks when driving at 115km/h. Doran noticed the Ring-necked Pheasant on the side of the road; that was the only other good bird we saw on the drive to the city.

My goal was to do some local birding while Doran attended Hal-Con – he has his own booth promoting his company, Whitefire Comics, and normally attends ComicCon in Ottawa every year but wanted to do something different this year. On Friday morning after helping set up his booth I went for a walk around the downtown area. First I checked out the waterfront area, which has its own eBird hotspot, though only 47 species have been recorded there. I thought I might see some loons, mergansers, or Common Eiders and was disappointed – the only birds I saw on the water were gulls. However, I did get Ring-billed Gull for my Nova Scotia list, so at least the visit was productive. The only other birds present were Herring Gull, Rock Pigeon, and European Starlings.

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Late October Sightings

Black-crowned Night-heron

Although migration continues to progress, I haven’t seen as many late-season migrants as I had hoped. Still, there have been a few highlights during the last week of the month, including the arrival of some of our winter birds.

I headed out to Shirley’s Bay on Sunday, October 23rd, but the wind was so cold and blustery that I didn’t spend much time there. I saw a Merlin perching in a tree along Rifle Road and found my first Snow Buntings of the fall picking their way along the shore. There were only two of them, and they flushed when a couple of photographers got too close – I don’t think they even realized they were there. They may have been trying to get close to a Common Loon swimming fairly close to shore, unremarkable in its gray winter plumage.

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