Winter’s Return

American Goldfinch (male) After a cool first few days of spring, the weather got even colder.  A high-pressure system has been stalled over western Ontario, funneling Arctic air southward and causing temperatures to fall well below seasonal.  When Deb and I went birding on Sunday, the temperature only reached -6°C…almost fifteen degrees below the average temperature for this time of year.  At first it didn’t seem that bad, but once we started birding in the open, the wind was terrible, seemingly blowing straight off the polar ice cap.

We started the morning with a trip to the Hilda Road feeders.  A big change seems to have taken place since the last time I was there; there were only three or four feeders hanging from the trees, and they did not seem to be well-stocked.  The three suet feeders on the birch tree where I photographed the Pileated Woodpecker over a year ago in January were empty.  Still, there seemed to be seed scattered everywhere on the ground, and the birds were enjoying it.  The most abundant species were Red-winged Blackbirds, American Tree Sparrows, and Common Redpolls.  To my surprise I only saw two chickadees and two Blue Jays, and the other regular species such as Mourning Doves, goldfinches and cardinals were conspicuously absent.  One White-breasted Nuthatch, two Hairy Woodpeckers (a male and female), one Downy Woodpecker, one starling and at least two grackles were also present.  At one point I thought I saw a Song Sparrow on the road with the redpolls, but I couldn’t be sure as I was looking into the sun and the bird appeared backlit.  We were hoping to see our first Brown-headed Cowbird of the year or some Snowshoe Hares but had no luck with either.

From there we drove out to Carp to look for the Greater White-fronted Geese seen on the Carp River floodplain near March Road.    This was the only Ontario goose that neither Deb nor I have seen, and we were hoping to add it to our respective life lists.  Although the river was mostly frozen, there were hundreds (thousands?!) of Canada Geese all sleeping in an enormous, tightly-packed group with their heads tucked into their feathers.  We scanned the flock from Carp Road and then from the end of Rivington Road.  Despite a careful look through the flock, neither Deb nor I saw anything other than Canadas.  After a good twenty minutes of freezing in the brisk northerly wind, we gave up and hurried back to the warmth of the car.

We drove some of the back roads before heading to the Old Quarry Trail.  It didn’t take us long before we saw our first deer, a doe and her slightly smaller offspring.  When I tossed some seed onto the ground, the mother cautiously walked up to the path and began eating.  The young deer didn’t seem as enthralled with this offering and remained well in the bush until her mother had finished eating.  The pair then walked off without so much as a backwards glance.

Young White-tailed Deer

We crossed paths with a few more deer, though none of them allowed us to approach them.  Then, as we approached the first boardwalk, we heard a wonderful sound issuing from the marsh: the lovely musical trill of a Song Sparrow!  As we got closer to the boardwalk we saw two Pileated Woodpeckers tapping away at a couple of trees near the path and several smaller birds flying around at the entrance of the marsh.  Someone had put out a large amount of sunflower seeds along the boardwalk railing, and several birds were taking advantage of them.  Among the chickadees we counted two Red-breasted Nuthatches, two cardinals, and one goldfinch.  The goldfinch is molting into breeding plumage, and the bright yellow feathers and hint of a black cap indicate that he is a male.

American Goldfinch

I also managed to photograph one of the nuthatches, also a male as indicated by the inky black cap.

Red-breasted Nuthatch

Red-breasted Nuthatch

The Song Sparrow was singing the whole time we were there, but never showed any interest in the seeds on the boardwalk.  We saw him from time to time, darting from one cattail perch to another though he never stayed out in the open long enough for us to take a picture of him.

After leaving the boardwalk, we returned to the shelter of the woods where we encountered a few more deer.  This section of the trail was quiet in terms of birds, and it wasn’t until we reached the next boardwalk that we saw our next bird of interest….a Turkey Vulture gliding above the marsh! Although not the most handsome of bird species, there is something magnificent about the way they glide effortlessly on the wind, their huge outstretched wings carrying them aloft with hardly a need to flap.  Strangely enough, we didn’t see or hear any Red-winged Blackbirds in the marsh.

We also saw a pair of robins in the small meadow near the end of the loop.  I wonder if they were as disheartened by the cold as we were.

American Robin

We called it a day after finishing the trail, as we were chilled to the bone from the Arctic wind.  It’s great to see all the birds returning, although I’m sure they are wondering – as we all are – when it’s going to start to feel like spring.

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