Farewell to February

American Robin

American Robin

February 28th fell on a Saturday this year. This is traditionally the last day of the winter birding season for birders, and the last day to record any birds for one’s winter list. I stopped keeping a winter list when I realized I no longer enjoyed driving well out of my way in miserably cold and/or snowy weather to see birds other people had found, especially unusual wintering birds that are otherwise quite common later in the year. Why make a special effort to chase after a Song Sparrow or a Hooded Merganser reported somewhere across the city when I knew I would see these birds much closer to home in the spring? Of course, if a REALLY good bird shows up – like the Gyrfalcon at the Lafleche Dump – I’m happy to go and add it to my life list or my year list, but otherwise I’m just as happy to stick close to home and go to the places I enjoy most.

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Mouse Rescue!

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.

Peromyscus sp.

Peromyscus sp.

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.

Peromyscus sp.

Peromyscus sp.

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!

The Wild Turkeys of Hurdman Park

Wild Turkey

Wild Turkey

On Wednesday, February 25th I headed out to Hurdman at lunch. It had warmed up to -10°C but a strong, icy wind made it feel much colder. I was still looking for Bohemian Waxwings, and was hoping the plentiful Buckthorn berries at Hurdman had attracted some of these winter wanderers – in winters where they are present, Hurdman is a good spot to find them. Perhaps it was the cold, but there were very few birds around. I counted only 4 species, all of which were right along the feeder path. The extremely cold winter has caused this section of the Rideau River to freeze over completely, so I didn’t see any ducks. This is the first time I haven’t seen any open water on either side of the 417 bridge, so it isn’t a surprise that the usual ducks and Common Goldeneyes have had to go elsewhere.

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A Winter Lifer

Snowy Owl

Snowy Owl

It’s been a long time since my last blog post. I haven’t been going out birding much this winter; the cold has been intolerable, with most mornings starting off well below -20°C. Even the daytime highs have been well below seasonal this year – I can think of only a few occasions where they have risen above -10C. In fact, this winter has been so cold that on February 25th, the Rideau Canal broke the record for the number of consecutive days it has remained open: 47, the most since it first opened 45 years ago. Normally heavy snowstorms and a rainy mid-winter thaw result in the canal’s closure for at least a couple of days each season. Not this year.

We haven’t received many heavy snowstorms since the new year, but the few that have occurred on the weekend have started early in the day. Twice I went out birding first thing in the morning and only managed to spend an hour outdoors before a curtain of snow descended. Ottawa actually hasn’t received a lot of snow this winter, but since we haven’t had any significant thaws either, the snow cover is fairly deep.

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A Northern Shoveler in January

Northern Shoveler

Northern Shoveler

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.

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After the Snow

Northern Cardinal

Northern Cardinal

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.

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A Brand New Year List

Black-backed Woodpecker

Black-backed Woodpecker

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.

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