Although it’s been a quiet winter for Boreal finches, Black-backed Woodpeckers, American Three-toed Woodpeckers, and other vagrant or irruptive birds here in Ottawa, we’ve still had a few interesting species overwintering here. A Red-shouldered Hawk was discovered at the Trail Road Landfill on January 25, 2020 and has remained in the area ever since – while most fly south in the fall, this species has been known to stay the winter here on occasion. In fact, my lifer Red-shouldered Hawk was an overwintering bird hanging around near Huntmar and Old Carp Roads in the winter of 2007-08. Their winter diet depends on mostly small mammals, although they may occasionally eat smaller birds such as sparrows, starlings, and doves. This would make the landfill an excellent place for a Red-shouldered Hawk to spend the winter; there are enough mice and small mammals to keep several Red-tailed Hawks well-fed, as well as a huge flock of starlings that spend the colder months here feeding on the remains of the sumac berries and landfill refuse. This winter several sparrows have been seen along the tree-line to the east of the dump, including the usual American Tree Sparrows, Dark-eyed Juncos, and two overwintering Song Sparrows.
I tried for the Red-shouldered Hawk twice after my return from Las Vegas, both on February 15th: I had no luck in the morning, so I returned later in the afternoon and spotted a car parked along the edge of the road. When I pulled over I scanned the area and noticed it perching on a post inside in the dump. This was the best view of a perching Red-shouldered Hawk I’ve had yet; it would be the best photo I’ve ever taken of one, except for the fence in the way – the snow banks were too deep for me to get close enough to put my camera against an opening in the chain link fence.
Although I’ve tried a few times to see it since, I never did find it again. They breed in the Ottawa area, returning in late March from their winter territories, although they are difficult to find. Stony Swamp is a repeat site for these small hawks; I’ve found an occupied nest once, and have seen birds flying over the pond at Sarsparilla Trail multiple times.
Carolina Wrens, on the other hand, are at the extreme northern limit of their range here in Ottawa. This species has been attempting to move further and further north, but often succumb to the harsh Canadian winters without making any real progress. Mud Lake is a repeat spot for this species, and indeed it is where I saw my life bird back in October 2011. One has been overwintering at Mud Lake again this winter; it was seen in the woods until late November 2019, went unreported for a month, and then was re-found on January 1, 2020. I was one of the people who saw it on New Year’s Day; the loud chattering sound caught my attention and I was eventually able to see this tiny dynamo perching out in the open. It has been present up until now, surviving a winter that has seen a lot of snow but very few really cold days (the dreaded Polar Vortex was noticeably absent this winter and was not missed). On February 23rd I caught up with it again in the same general area of the woods on the west side, which is where I’ve had all my Carolina Wrens now that I think about it. Once again I heard it before I saw it, and when it popped up on a tree stump to announce its general annoyance with the world I snapped a quick picture.
Just as quickly it flew across the trail and landed next to a huge fallen tree where it weaved in and out of its shadow before disappearing beneath a cluster of branches near the crown.
Birds like these have helped keep the winter boredom at bay. While they may not be able to compete with the birds seen at a tropical destination in the south, they are often difficult to see in the Ottawa area any time of year, and it’s great to get them for my year list now – and to get such great views!
She came into our lives on August 4, 2001 when Doran and I visited the Humane Society in the hope of adopting a pet. I had never had a gray cat before and was enchanted by the thought of getting one; I had my eye on one in a cage in the cat room at the OHS but Doran saw Phaedra (then called “Muffin” by the Humane Society) rubbing herself against the bars of the cage on a higher shelf, wanting out, but almost purring and looking content. She was a beautiful tortoiseshell colour, all blacks and browns with cream mixed in. The Humane Society worker let us hold her, and right from the start she seemed to be a happy, affectionate cat. She won our hearts immediately, and we took her home in a cardboard pet box in our old ’89 Ford Taurus that day. I remember how she chaffed at being in there so I opened the top; she jumped out and hid under the seat. I had to pull her out in order to bring her to our apartment on Iris Street. When we put her down on the floor she immediately ran to hide beneath a computer desk. Doran had to run to Walmart to get food and a litter box and pet supplies while I tried to coax her out.
We started our visit at the Visitor’s Center. As it was quite crowded we stayed away from the center itself, and walked around the parking lot looking for Cactus Wrens. This was my favourite bird from my last visit here, and I was disappointed when none appeared. We did see a White-tailed Antelope Squirrel scurrying across the parking lot, and I was worried that it would be hit by a car.
The weather improved on Wednesday, so Doran and I made plans to go to Sunset Park to look for a Varied Thrush that has been hanging around. This is a rare bird in Las Vegas in the winter, and I had heard about it from Justin Streit, who was also kind enough to send me a map showing its exact location in the park. It was most often seen foraging on the ground near a line of dense shrubs east of the pond, often feeding with doves and blackbirds.