Northern Shovelers are medium-sized ducks that are usually only found in Ottawa during migration. Although the bulk of the population breeds across the western half of the continent, from Manitoba west to B.C. and into Alaska, Yukon, and the Northwest Territories, a very small number have been confirmed breeding in southern and eastern Ontario. I usually only see them when they stop over on ponds such as the ones at the Richmond Lagoons and Sarsaparilla Trail, the Moodie Drive Quarry, and inside the dyke at Shirley’s Bay, both in the spring and in the fall. In the spring, Northern Shovelers typically pass through Ottawa during the month of April; I usually have more sightings in the fall, when they pass through from late August through late October. The latest I’ve seen this species in Ottawa is the first week of November. I have never known of one overwintering in our area, so when I heard there was one in Kanata about 5 minutes away from where I live, I decided to check it out the first chance I got.
On Sunday I didn’t go out birding as the weather was awful – first we got about six inches of snow, then freezing rain for most of the afternoon, and then back to snow. The rest of the week was cold, hovering below -20°C during the day, so I didn’t get out until it “warmed up” on Friday to the point where the air no longer felt like a mask of ice against my face. Even better, the sun was shining! I’d been itching to get out to the Rideau River where late-lingering waterfowl such as Northern Pintail, Wood Duck and Pied-billed Grebe were all being seen between Strathcona Park and the Hurdman Bridge. I chose to spend my lunch hour at Hurdman Park, as I was also hoping also to see some robins or waxwings feeding on the berries there in addition to the ducks in the river.
When 2015 arrived, I was up and out the door before it fully got light. I was thinking of trying to track down the American Three-toed Woodpecker in Gatineau, but as it was a bit windy, I decided it might not be the best idea. Not only are birds harder to find on windy days, as they tend to seek shelter, it’s also hard to hear a woodpecker tapping softly over the sound of the wind and the creaking of the trees. Instead I stuck to my usual plan, trying to hit as many places as possible which included (1) open water; (2) mixed woodland; (3) open agricultural areas; (4) a landfill; and (5) an area with feeders. I started off the morning at Jack Pine Trail as I had seen a good variety of species there in the past week, and I figured I should easily be able to tally at least a dozen species.
I’ve been spending a lot of time in Stony Swamp over the holidays. It is a huge conservation area in western Ottawa, with several trails only a short drive from my house. Its location is the chief reason why I spend so much time there, but another reason is the abundance of wildlife. Some places I’ve visited in wintertime are absolutely desolate – for example, on a visit to the Cedar Grove Nature Trail in February 2013 I recorded only two bird species (Black-capped Chickadee and Pileated Woodpecker) and zero mammals, despite a variety of tracks visible in the snow. At Stony Swamp, the wildlife is used to being fed right along the trails and, accordingly, this is where many species gather, rather than dispersing deeper into the woods.
Tomorrow is January 1st, which means it’s almost time to reset the current year list to 0 and start all over again. This is one of the highlights of winter for me, because on January 1st every bird is new again…even the pigeons and starlings, even the crows. Without a brand new year list to work on, I lose the motivation to get outside and see what’s around, particularly since there are fewer and fewer birds to see as the winter wears on.
One of the birds that makes our long, cold Ottawa winters tolerable is the Snow Bunting. These songbirds typically begin arriving in late October or early November and stay till the end of March, making them a true “snow bird”. In the early part of the season they are most likely to be found foraging along the shore of the Ottawa River, particularly in somewhat rocky areas like Shirley’s Bay. While I usually see a few small flocks at Shirley’s Bay in November, most of my sightings occur during December, January, and February, after the river has frozen and the Snow Buntings move into agricultural areas where they feed on weeds, grass seeds and corn. They also come to gravel roads to ingest grit, which assists their gizzards in grinding the small seeds they typically eat.
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.