In a Dark Wood

On Saturday I visited a trail I haven’t been to in many months: the Old Quarry Trail in Stony Swamp. Although it is known for the tame deer that can be hand-fed in the winter time, there are lots of other bird and mammal species around that make it worth visiting. Porcupines are quite common, and it’s an unusual day when I don’t see at least one high up in a tree sleeping or feeding on bark. Pileated Woodpeckers, cardinals, Ruffed Grouse, finches, juncos, nuthatches, ravens and Brown Creepers are also found here year-round, though they seem to be more conspicuous in the winter time. I’ve seen fox tracks and Snowshoe Hare tracks in the snow on occasion, but never the animals themselves. What an amazing treat it would be to come face-to-face with one of these creatures!

I had high hopes when I came across a flock of juncos on the trail just beyond the parking lot. Someone had left some seed on the trail, and the juncos and chickadees were busy feeding. Of course they all scattered when I walked by, though I tossed some more bird seed on the ground for them to eat.

The woods were quieter than I expected. One Downy Woodpecker, several chickadees, a trio of White-breasted Nuthatches, a couple of robins, several crows and a pair of Common Ravens were about all that I saw. I heard a couple of finches flying over but couldn’t identify the calls. At the “Deer John” feeder I saw three people putting out food for about five does. Intrigued, I walked up the path to see if I could get any photos. As usual, the females were very accommodating.

Searching for a snack

A younger deer caught my attention, at first because he appeared smaller than the others, and then because of the two knobby antlers growing out of his forehead. I didn’t know until I looked it up later that male fawns grow two small bump-like antlers, or “buttons”, their first year. I thought antler development didn’t begin until the fawns reached full size the following year.

Young Buck

Indeed, bucks grow their first true set of antlers during the following spring and summer. Antler growth commences in response to changes in photoperiod and is very rapid. Some deer species are capable of growing nearly 1 inch of antler per day! The second rack will be bigger than the first, and with sufficient nutrition, each set of antlers will grow even larger until the buck passes his prime (usually 5-7 years old).

Sharing a meal

I left the deer to their meal and headed deeper into the woods, but a couple of Red Squirrels and two porcupines sleeping in trees were the only other mammals I saw. A little further along I heard the crows making a racket and saw several streaming across the sky. I hurried down the path and tried to make my way over to where the noise was coming from, but by the time I found a dark, enclosed side trail the noise had stopped. Still, I decided to keep walking to see how far it went. I had only walked about 20 metres when a large, pale bird flew out of the gloom, over the path, and landed in a tree close by! There was no question that it was an owl – not the Great Horned Owl I was hoping for, as I still need one for my year list, but a Barred Owl!

I could see him just fine from where I was standing, so I didn’t take a step forward. He knew I was there, though, and kept twisting his head around to look at me. A red squirrel in a nearby tree knew he was there, too, and kept up a constant chatter. It was a gray, cloudy day, which meant it was far too dark within the interior of the woods to take any pictures, so I simply enjoyed the sight of this beautiful, elusive owl. We weren’t too far off the main trail, however, and when a pair of hikers came along talking, the owl took off again as silently as it had arrived.

I didn’t see anything else of interest on my way back, but the encounter with the owl left me feeling elated. This feeling lingered all the way to my next destination, the Moodie Drive quarry ponds where I hoped to find some white-winged gulls. There were no Glaucous or Iceland Gulls present, but I did see about 100 Ring-billed Gulls, a few Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls, several Hooded Mergansers, one Common Merganser, a couple of Ruddy Ducks, and one Ring-necked Duck. At the back I noticed a lone gull bobbing on the water which struck me as different. It had a dark back, but not nearly as dark as a Great Black-backed Gull, and a head that appeared “smudgy” rather than the pure white of the Herring Gull’s. I asked a fellow birder if there were any Lesser Black-backed Gulls present, and he confirmed my suspicions by advising that there were two of them…including the one I had observed! Gulls can be tricky to identify, so I was pleased to have identified an adult Lesser Black-backed Gull on my own. These are the only ones that I’ve seen since Tony Beck pointed out my first to me at Ottawa Beach in 2007, so I was really happy that I stopped by! I am not sure which sighting meant more to me, the Barred Owl or the Lesser Black-backed Gull; both were fantastic finds and helped make the gloomy, gray November day a memorable one!

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