The woods were quiet when I arrived – there weren’t many birds around, though a few chickadees flew up to me looking for handouts. It didn’t take long to find a couple of Mourning Cloaks circling each other as they flew up into the trees. As I was still watching them, a third landed on a tree in front of me.
I’ve been meaning to get to Billings Bridge for a while now, and finally had the chance last Thursday. It was overcast and cold (only 4°C at lunch time). I still managed to tally 16 species including one Common Goldeneye, 3 Wood Ducks, 8 Hooded Mergansers, 3 Common Mergansers (all males), a couple of Red-winged Blackbirds and a Song Sparrow.
I started Good Friday with a walk at the Beaver Trail where I unknowingly flushed six ducks hidden in the marsh at the back, at least two of which were Wood Ducks. A few more Red-winged Blackbirds had arrived, and I heard a single Common Grackle call near the Wild Bird Care Centre. Blackbirds flew over several times while I was there, but the day was overcast and I didn’t get a good look at them. The best bird was a pair of Golden-crowned Kinglets in the woods near the meadow – this species was a year bird for me.
However, three woodpecker species exist which have only three toes. Two (the Black-backed Woodpecker and the American Three-toed Woodpecker) are found in North America, while the third (the Eurasian Three-toed Woodpecker) is found in the Boreal regions of Europe and Asia. These species all inhabit coniferous forests where they feed chiefly on wood-boring beetle larvae. The American Three-toed Woodpecker has the northern-most breeding range in North America, while the Eurasian Three-toed Woodpecker has the northern-most breeding range in Eurasia. These two species were considered one species until 2003, when they were split because of differences in voice and in mitochondrial DNA sequences. All are believed to have a common ancestor which lost the first toe, the hallux, over time.
The fourth toe is not fixed in a backwards direction, but is able to rotate sideways or even forwards as the woodpecker moves up and down a tree. It is thought that woodpeckers with four toes only use three toes to grip the tree trunk, while the fourth is kept beneath the leg or extends out to the side, thus limiting the amount of force a woodpecker is able to deliver while hammering on a tree trunk. Woodpeckers with three toes do not need to accommodate this extra toe and are able to extend their body back further from the tree when it strikes.
My office building downtown doesn’t provide many opportunities for encounters of the natural kind. In the warmer months, coworkers sometimes call me to their office to ask about the Turkey Vultures flying by our 26th-floor windows. Once, on a fall morning several years ago, someone noticed a bat sleeping on the side of the building through his office window, and boy did I wish I had brought my camera with me that day! On another occasion, I was walking back to the office after lunch and watched as a Merlin landed on the roof of the building next to ours, and spent some time watching it through my binoculars when I got back up to my floor. Other than that, I am pretty much limited to watching the crows, pigeons, Ring-billed Gulls and occasional ravens fly by as they live their own lives in downtown Ottawa.
On Wednesday, though, as soon as I entered my building my attention was attracted by two men looking down at something on the ground asking, “Is it a mouse? Or maybe some kind of vole?”
I glanced down and was surprised (and more than a bit thrilled) to see a small mouse scurrying along the wall looking for cover. It was either a White-footed Mouse (Peromyscus leucopus) or a Deer Mouse (Peromyscus maniculatus), two species that look quite similar but can only be identified in the hand by taking measurements. I immediately began to worry that someone not as tolerant of rodents as I am would see it and kill it before it could get into the hidden spaces of the building.
I quickly walked over to Green Rebel, the closest food vendor, and asked for a cup with a lid. They were happy to oblige, so I set about catching the mouse before it could come to harm. This wasn’t as hard as I expected; the mouse actually paused in front of me to investigate a bit of food on the floor, and so I quickly brought the cup down over top of it and scooped it up. I then began carrying it outside.
And then I realized I had my camera with me.
I rarely see these mice, and when I do it’s usually after dark when it’s impossible to photograph them. There I was, actually carrying one in my hand, so of course I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to take a few photos! Now, if only I had had a taxonomic key with me (and some time to review it) I might have actually been able to identify this fellow to the species level instead of calling it a “Peromyscus sp.”
As I did have a job I needed to get to, I took the wee fellow across the street and released him beneath some shrubs where I hoped he would find ample cover until nightfall.
Later that day I went to Green Rebel for lunch and told the guy who had given me the cup about the mouse rescue. He actually thanked me for not killing it, and for that I am giving him a shout-out here – it always surprises me when I meet someone not affiliated with any of my nature groups who agrees with my view that all creatures, no matter how small or inconvenient to humans, are important to the ecosystem in which they live – even one as urban as the one in which I work.
The whole mouse rescue really brightened my morning, and made me glad I had brought my camera to work that morning. You just never know when something interesting might cross your path!