Searching for Spring

Mink (Mustela vison)

The weather has been terrible this month.  Until Saturday, I had only been able to get out birdwatching once so far, back on March 1st when I spent a short lunch hour at Hurdman.  Since then, two storms have dropped a combined total of about two and half feet of snow on Ottawa, and the most recent storm was followed by a day’s worth of rain which has left the city a soggy, sodden mess.  Then I was hit with a sinus cold which left me without the energy to go anywhere even on the rare few days when the sun came out.

When I woke up on Saturday, the sky was still gray and gloomy, but I was tired of being cooped up inside and wanted to get out and work on my March list, which stood at a paltry 19 species. Since I still wasn’t  completely over my cold, I figured I would stay out just long enough to add another 10 common species to my month list.  If I could find a few of the Red-winged Blackbirds that had been reported, so much the better, but I was sure I could come up with at least 10 birds in the agricultural area between Kanata and Richmond, with a stop at Jack Pine Trail as necessary.

As luck would have it, I hadn’t even left the house when I added my first species to the day’s tally, a Blue Jay sitting in a tree across the street.  This was the first one I’d seen in the neighbourhood since the fall, so I made it a point to fill the birdfeeder in the backyard before I went out in the hopes of enticing him to stick around (he didn’t).

Next I went looking for Snow Buntings and Horned Larks along Rushmore Road.  When I didn’t find any there, I continued along Akins Road where I found my first Red-winged Blackbirds of the year instead!  I heard them before I saw them, and found three males sitting in a tree near a farmhouse.  There were two other birds sitting at the top of another tree, and when I put the scope on them I realized they were grackles.  I even heard one’s rusty-gate squeak before getting in the car and continuing on my way.

I still had Snow Buntings on my mind, however, so I turned down Shea.  There I had my most amazing encounter of the day when I noticed a small, dark mammal running in the ditch toward me!  I pulled over and got out of the car, already zooming in with my camera as I turned it on.

Mink (Mustela vison)

This was my first confirmed sighting of a mink, a long, sinuous member of the weasel family.  Although I kept expecting him to disappear, he just kept running along the bottom of the ditch just above the frozen water.  I managed to snap two photos before he rounded a corner and disappeared behind a snow bank.

Mink (Mustela vison)

Finding a mink in this habitat surprised me as there is nothing on either side of the road except farm fields.  While minks are common in wetlands and along lakeshores, rivers and streams, they can show up any place where water is present.  They are highly aquatic creatures and rely on the presence of waterways as travelling routes and major sources of food and shelter.  Their dens are usually made up of burrows close to water which have been abandoned by or stolen from muskrats or beavers. Other den sites may consist of hollowed-out stumps or fallen logs, beaver lodges and muskrat houses.

The mink is active all year round and is largely nocturnal.  Almost as aquatic as otters, these skillful predators feed on a wide variety of game including muskrats, fish, crayfish, frogs, insects, meadow voles, rabbits, snakes and eggs.

I was thrilled with the encounter, as brief as it was.  At one point the mink did stop next to a short shrub and look at me for a few seconds before bounding off.

On Brownlee I found another Red-winged Blackbird, but didn’t come across any Horned Larks until I reached Barnsdale Road where I flushed two in the gravel at the side of the road.  When I pulled over, I located one in the field singing.  This was my fourth new bird of the day, and I came across numbers five through seven – Herring, Great Black-backed and Ring-billed Gulls – loafing on the ice of the Moodie Drive quarry pond.  I heard the gulls as soon as I got out of the car and grabbed my scope for a better look.  The Great Black-backed Gulls were easy to pick out, and I definitely could pick out a few Herring Gulls which were nearly the same size and the Ring-billed Gulls which were much smaller.  It was great seeing all these gulls again after their notable absence all winter.

After seeing another Red-winged Blackbird on Moodie Drive next to a tree full of Mourning Doves, I came across a large flock of Dark-eyed Juncos (species no. 8) and a single Red-tailed Hawk (species no. 9) on Trail Road by the dump.  I found two more Red-winged Blackbirds singing in the shrubs as well.  Around the corner on Barnsdale I came across a large flock of American Tree Sparrows, my tenth species of the day, foraging in the dead grass next to the road. When I pulled over to take a closer look, a robin flew over, and I heard a second one singing softly in the trees.

As I was having such a good day it seemed unthinkable not to stop in at Jack Pine Trail for a quick look.  Brown Creeper, Red-breasted Nuthatch and all three woodpecker species were high on my list of birds to see, and as soon as I got out of the car I heard one Brown Creeper calling and a second one singing right next to the parking lot! I heard about three more on my trek to the feeder, where I saw my first one when it flew down to the base of the tree right in front of me!

Brown Creeper

He did the most un-creeper-like thing, however, and snatched up something in the snow at the base of the tree before darting back up the trunk.  I think this is only the second time I’ve ever seen a Brown Creeper do anything other than scurry up a tree!

Brown Creeper

In this photo he looks as though he has a seed in his bill.  This surprised me, until I read on Cornell’s website that while Brown Creepers feed mostly on small insects, spiders, and other invertebrates, they may also consume small quantities of seeds.

Brown Creeper

A male cardinal dropped in for a quick visit while I was there, and I saw two American Tree Sparrows hopping about on the ground.  I added Red-breasted Nuthatch, Hairy Woodpecker and Downy Woodpecker to my month list, too, before I left the feeder area.

Although the day was quite gray and damp, it was pleasant to be out in the woods. I found another Hairy Woodpecker and another singing Brown Creeper in the woods, and while standing on one of the boardwalks I had two Pileated Woodpeckers fly by overhead, vocalizing loudly.  There was only a small patch of open water at the first boardwalk, which meant that none of the mallards had returned yet.  I heard (and saw) quite a few Blue Jays and crows, but didn’t see any robins or blackbirds at Jack Pine Trail.  On my way out, I came across a lengthy trail of raccoon prints in the snow.

The 16th and last new species of the month was seen on the ponds at Eagleson and Emerald Meadows while driving home.  About one-third of the pond is now ice-free, and there were at least 20 Canada Geese swimming in the water and standing on the ice.  I noticed several mallards as well, but no other species.

It was a short outing, but a good one, with the mink and several returning migrants including Red-winged Blackbirds, Common Grackles, Ring-billed Gulls and Canada Geese.  Even though we’re still a week away from the equinox, the birds tell me that spring has arrived!

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