A Journey down Hilda Road

Last winter, when inclement weather resulted in a lack of fresh material for my blog, I started a series about my favourite birding places in the Ottawa area. It’s a series I am hoping to expand, and once upon a time I would have definitely included a post about the feeders on Hilda Road. Well, after five years of visiting the feeders, the story I feel compelled to write is not about why Hilda Road is my favourite place, but rather why it’s a place I no longer enjoy visiting.

I first became aware of the Hilda Road feeders in December 2006 after seeing them described as “a must to visit in winter” on NeilyWorld and hearing another birder talk about them. Located on NCC land near Shirley’s Bay, the feeders are situated in a rural area where cottages existed many years ago before eventually being demolished. For many decades a few dedicated individuals have kept the feeders on Hilda Road filled during the winter months at their own expense, for no other reason than to enjoy watching the birds and animals they attract.

The dedication and loyalty of those people to the Hilda Road site benefited others as well. Bird watchers and nature lovers alike used to huddle in their cars on Ottawa’s coldest winter days to watch the birds feed. Three species of woodpecker dined on suet, while Blue Jays, chickadees, nuthatches, cardinals and the occasional Red-winged Blackbird flocked to the sunflower seed and peanut feeders. Mourning Doves, American Tree Sparrows, and other sparrows passing through during migration could be seen pecking on the ground for seeds. The nyjer seed feeders attracted goldfinches, and, in irruption years, boreal finches such as Pine Siskins and Common and Hoary Redpolls. Squirrels (and chipmunks during the warmer months of the year) bicker and chase each other away from the feeder area, snowshoe hares are often seen eating the food on the ground, and trays full of corn and vegetables help the deer to survive the winter. With so much activity, it is no wonder that birds of prey such as Merlin, Northern Shrike, and the occasional accipiter are attracted to the feeders, too.

American Tree Sparrow. I had never seen one close-up before visiting Hilda Road.

On my very first visit I immediately discovered why they rank so high on Larry Neily’s sites to visit in winter. As soon as I drove to the top of the hill on Hilda Road I saw about 4 or 5 different feeders hanging from the trees and a flurry of avian activity. I parked on the shoulder, thought about getting out of the car, then had a better idea. I moved over into the passenger seat instead and rolled down the window – thus using the car as a “blind”! The variety of birds enjoying the bounty astonished me – chickadees, Blue Jays, Mourning Doves, one blackbird, a Hairy Woodpecker, a male and female cardinal, several American Tree Sparrows, a White-breasted Nuthatch, and several American Goldfinches were all busy feeding on the seeds put out for them. Even a Snowshoe Hare hopped out of the shrubs to sample the fare! There were far more birds and mammals here than I could ever hope to attract to the feeders in my tiny suburban backyard; I knew I had discovered a special place.

I continued to visit the feeders all that winter. Sometimes I arrived to find another car or two already there, the occupants enjoying the wildlife from the warmth of their vehicles; sometimes I arrived to find individuals putting out vegetables or bags full of seed; once I arrived to find a birding group studying the feeders; but most of the time my car was the only one there. I saw the Snowshoe Hare again, and a White-crowned Sparrow a couple of times early in January 2007 – this is a rare winter visitor for Ottawa, as they usually spend the winter further south. I even saw a couple of deer a few times, licking the seeds from the rocks!

White-tailed Deer, 2007. I haven’t seen any deer at the feeders in over a year.

The White-crowned Sparrow disappeared later in the month. A discussion with another bird-lover toward the end of February shed some light on its disappearance. I arrived that day to find another car parked along the shoulder and two deer eating some vegetables on the ground. The deer left when I pulled up; and then about ten minutes later all the birds scattered and the chickadees began calling out in alarm. After a few minutes the driver of the other car got out, and so I did too. She asked me if I saw the Merlin. Although I hadn’t, she told me that the Merlin is a “local” and comes every day. Although not always visible, the birds seemed to know when it was around.

We started talking while we were looking for the Merlin, and she told me that she is one of the people who keeps the feeders filled. She asked if I had seen the deer when I drove up. I said I had, and she told me the doe had broken her leg but that it seemed to be healing well. The doe and the buck had been coming every day for the last few weeks, and the buck would make sure the doe would eat at the beginning. Now that the doe is healthier, the buck has been eating all the food and the woman now had to put out two piles of food for them! I asked her if she had seen the White-crowned Sparrow lately, but she said she hadn’t seen it in several weeks and thought that the Merlin got it.

Snowshoe Hares frequently visit the feeders in the winter.

In the spring I discovered that the feeders attract a number of early migrants. White-throated Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos joined the American Tree Sparrows, and Red-winged Blackbirds, Common Grackles and Brown-headed Cowbirds joined the chickadees and Blue Jays. I never did see the Merlin there, but have heard many stories about it.

I visited the Shirley’s Bay cottage area on and off that summer and fall, often wandering the trails and discovering Brown Thrashers, House Wrens, Black-and-white Warblers, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, and Field Sparrows. One day in November 2007, I was walking along the road when I noticed movement in the woods. To my surprise, a Ruffed Grouse was walking along a log. These birds normally disappear into the brush as soon as they realize they are being watched, so I crept a little closer, trying to get a better look at the grouse. She obliged me not only by stepping out into the open, but by continuing to walk toward me!

Hilda, the tame Ruffed Grouse that followed people.

At first I was amused by the whining noises she made, the way she followed me, and even the way she attacked my baggie full of sunflower seeds when I set it down on the ground. Then I became concerned about what would happen to her if word got out that there was a Ruffed Grouse near the Hilda Road feeders that walked up to people. For that reason I kept my discovery a secret, afraid that if word got around that this lovely bird would suddenly be besieged by photographers the same way a Northern Hawk Owl in Quebec had been besieged earlier that year. The Northern Hawk Owl in Quebec was my first lesson in how intrusive some photographers can be in pursuing the object of their interest, and it opened my eyes to the harassment some of these birds face.

In the late fall of 2007 a remarkable finch irruption occurred, with many different boreal species showing up in southern Ontario and the northern United States. Pine Grosbeaks, Evening Grosbeaks, Common Redpolls, Pine Siskins and Purple Finches were all being seen further south than expected. On November 7, 2008 Ron Pittaway wrote to Ontbirds: “We are experiencing the biggest winter finch irruption since the ‘superflight’ of 1997-1998, when many boreal finches went well beyond their normal ranges. The cause is the largest tree seed crop failure in a decade across more than 3200 km (2000 mi) of boreal forest from Saskatchewan into Quebec.” Between late October and the end of the year I added Bohemian Waxwing, Common Redpoll, Pine Grosbeak, Evening Grosbeak and Hoary Redpoll to my life list. These birds were all looking for food and, with the exception of the Bohemian Waxwings which eat crab-apples and Mountain Ash berries, all of them visit feeders to some extent.

Common Redpoll

Late in December the Common Redpolls arrived at the Hilda Road feeders. I found about it through Ontbirds; so did 2,000 other subscribers. I also read on Ontbirds that a tame Ruffed Grouse had been seen eating the food beneath the feeders! I had been there on Boxing Day and hadn’t seen either species during my visit, so I decided to head there early on New Year’s Day in order to start my brand new year list.

I arrived at 8:30 in the morning and was surprised to see a crowd of people already gathered around the feeders, many of them sporting cameras with lenses at least a foot in length. I watched the feeders for a little bit, then decided to leave as there were hardly any birds visiting the feeder. The Common Redpolls were still there, but I only added seven species to my 2008 year list that morning; a snow storm was imminent so I didn’t stop anywhere else. On my way out, I was forced to stop when I came to a car parked at the bottom of the hill. It didn’t take very long to see the reason why; the famous tame Ruffed Grouse was standing in the road! The driver was afraid of hitting the bird with her car, so knowing its tendency to follow people, I got out of mine and walked up to it. Once the grouse saw me, it lost all interest in the car. I tried to lead it away from the car’s path, but it didn’t want to follow me. Instead, the grouse flew up on top of a snow bank and perched as though it wanted its picture taken! I was happy to oblige, and by that time not only was the woman in the car able to leave, the other photographers had seen the grouse and were approaching. I stayed for a little while, then left as it started snowing.

For the rest of that winter, Hilda Road was very popular with birders and photographers hoping to see and photograph the variety of wildlife present. I returned a couple of times with Deb, who was hoping to see the tame Ruffed Grouse; our visits were unsuccessful, and eventually the tame Ruffed Grouse disappeared. The last time I saw a grouse in the area was early one morning in May when one crossed Rifle Road right in front of me, heading onto the DND property.

Eastern Cottontails, December 2007. This is the only time I’ve ever seen these rabbits at the feeders.

The winter of 2008-09 was also a good one for seeing winter finches, in particular White-winged Crossbills and Pine Siskins. Common Redpolls showed up later, and once they and the siskins discovered the feeders at Hilda Road it became a great place to see both species. One morning in late February I arrived to find a long line of cars was parked along the shoulder. A number of photographers were leaving, having just seen the Merlin which regularly haunts the area. I began speaking with one gentleman, and he mentioned that people had been feeding the birds in this same spot for 40 years! There used to be an NCC building on the premises years ago, and the people who worked there originally put up the feeders. Even though the building is now gone, people still come to fill the feeders daily.

While we were talking, a Snowshoe Hare ventured out of the shrubs and began eating the seeds on the ground. That was my first Snowshoe Hare sighting of that winter, and I was happy when he continued to eat even though four photographers (including myself) were taking photos of it.

A week later Deb and I stopped by the feeders to look for the Snowshoe Hare and the other finches on our way to see the Great Grey Owl in Dunrobin. Again a long line of cars was parked along the side of the road, and a number of photographers were gathered around the feeders. We had no choice but to get out of the car if we wanted to see anything, although the only finches at the feeders were a large number of Common Redpolls and at least one Hoary Redpoll. We could hear the siskins calling from the tops of the spruce trees and an American Tree Sparrow singing somewhere in the bush, but neither species approached the feeders. Soon after we arrived, the photographers began leaving. Then we noticed not one, but two Snowshoe Hares lurking in the bush. One was quite content to feed in front of all the spectators, while the second didn’t come out until nearly everyone was gone. The presence of so many people at the feeders for a second week in a row concerned me, and I wondered what effect they were having on the birds and finches.

Northern Cardinals are shy birds and will not come to the feeders when people are standing close by.

In the spring the finches headed north, and Hilda Road’s popularity diminished. Peace returned – for a little while, anyway. Although the photographers left when the finches did, another amazing discovery brought them back. In August 2010, a rare melanistic chipmunk was discovered visiting the feeders. Melanism occurs as a result of an increased amount of dark pigmentation in the skin, feathers, hair or fur of an organism. Completely black, this unusual chipmunk had no stripes or other markings. The discovery was reported in the newspaper, and people came from all over Ontario just to see it…even an OFO (Ontario Field Ornithologists) group made it a point to look for the chipmunk while exploring the bird life of Ottawa. I saw the chipmunk once at the end of August, but didn’t return to the feeders again until October due to the renewed interest in the area. The chipmunk was still there, gathering seeds for the winter. I saw him again twice the following spring, and was happy to see he had survived the winter.

Rare Melanistic Chipmunk

Common Redpolls descended on the feeders again in the winter of 2010-2011. Whenever I visited Hilda Road, there were usually one or two cars parked along the shoulder. Often there were people gathered around the feeders, many carrying large cameras. I was puzzled as to why photographers with high-end photography equipment and large, expensive lenses needed to stand so close to the feeders. Sometimes, if there were enough birds at the feeders to pique my interest, I would get out of the car for a better look. More often than not, however, only those birds inured to the close proximity of humans (i.e. chickadees, Blue Jays, nuthatches) would be visiting the feeders, while shyer species (i.e. American Tree Sparrows, Mourning Doves, cardinals) kept their distance. As the winter progressed it became a rare occasion when I didn’t see a group of photographers standing beneath or next to the feeders, talking and joking more often than taking pictures. Were they conversing so much because there were no “good” birds present? Or were there no “good” birds present because the photographers were spending so much time standing and talking only a few feet away from the feeders? While experience suggests the latter, the people doing it either didn’t realize the effect they were having, or didn’t care. Eventually I stopped going to Hilda Road because there were too many people, too few birds and no large mammals – I didn’t see a single deer or Snowshoe Hare at the feeders all last winter. The feelings of peace and simple joy I used to experience while watching the wildlife on Hilda Road had vanished.

The people who stock the feeders have been frustrated with the situation ever since the “superflight” of 2007-08, when the Hilda Road feeders first became popular with photographers. By the winter of 2010-11, there were only three steady people maintaining the feeders, and one of them was ill. George, who had been coming every day since 1966, moved away from the area but still cared enough to occasionally bring carrots and nyjer seeds. The people I spoke with found it upsetting that the photographers didn’t respect the birds’ space, and, moreover, didn’t bring any food with them….unless it was to put peanuts on the rocks in order to lure the birds closer. One of them complained that the apple tree no longer produced any apples after photographers broke several branches on the left-hand side. Another admitted to staying away unless no one was around.

Dark-eyed Junco. Another shy species that won’t come to the feeders if humans are nearby.

The people who maintain the feeders on Hilda Road are not part of a club or organization, and many of them don’t know each other. They simply enjoy being close to nature and watching the birds and mammals that eat the food they bring. They pay for the food out of their own pockets, and maintain the feeders at their own expense. Even though feeders are stolen and the home-made tables are broken every winter, they still find enough enjoyment in feeding the birds to keep coming back every winter.

However they, like me and many others, no longer find visiting Hilda Road a pleasant experience. Too many people visiting the feeders are failing to keep a respectful distance. Photographers, in particular, spend too much time standing right beside the feeders, sometimes even setting their cameras down on the tray feeders while talking with their companions. Many species that are either skittish or prefer to feed on the ground no longer come to the feeders. Two winters ago, there were at least 12 Snowshoe Hares visiting the area; last year there were only three.

The situation has not improved this winter. Deb and I visited the feeders one day a few weeks ago and found only one feeder hanging from the trees; the rest were all gone, either taken down or stolen. The feeder was empty. The little tables were still there, as were the suet holders on the birch tree, and all of them were completely empty.

Hilda Road Feeders, December 11, 2011

Although one other car was parked at the feeders, it was abundantly clear that its owner was there solely to photograph the birds rather than to feed them; he was busy propping up large birch branches against the rocks and sprinkling seeds on them. I didn’t recognize the photographer, but found his behaviour entirely self-serving. I felt bad for the few chickadees and Blue Jays still hanging around, so I brought out a bag of bird seed and divided the contents between the tables and the feeder. As soon as I got back in the car, more birds appeared: a Downy Woodpecker immediately landed on the feeder, while a Red-winged Blackbird, a male cardinal, and a couple of American Tree Sparrows all flew in to enjoy the feast.

It is my view that the photographers who spend hours next to the feeders, set up artificial perches, and set out meager amounts of food in order to lure the birds in closer are not only exploiting the birds, but also the people who have maintained these feeders for years (or decades!) out of the goodness of their hearts and at their own expense. George, Mary, Brian, Penny, Wendy, and all the others whose names remain unknown put the feeders up for everyone’s enjoyment; however, the photographers treat the feeder area as their own private photo studio, which is not only disrespectful to the birds, but also to the birders and nature-lovers who stop by. Although one person told me that she hasn’t considered the idea of taking down the feeders because she doesn’t think that everyone else’s enjoyment should be ruined by a few disrespectful people, others have said that the place has become spoiled by the paparazzi, and wonder why they ought to continue supplying food for a place that has almost become lost not only to the respectful people, but to the animals as well.

Hilda Road Feeders, December 11, 2011

I returned the feeders two weeks later, on December 27, 2011. The birch branches were all gone, and, to my delight, I found three feeders hanging from the trees, all of which were full! The nyjer seed feeders were still gone, but the tables were full of seeds, and there were actually suet cakes in the holders attached to the birch tree. It seems that the generous individuals who have given so much of their own time and money to create a little wildlife haven on a former NCC site in Shirley’s Bay haven’t abandoned it yet. Perhaps, then it’s too early for nature lovers like myself to give up on Hilda Road. Only time will tell.

3 thoughts on “A Journey down Hilda Road

  1. Thank you for remembering that cottagers (and many year-round residents) lived in Shirley’s Bay. Year-round, we fed birds in our yard opposite the feeders on Hilda Road from 1954 through to 1967 when we were expropriated. We now live on the BC west coast and have eagle trees, but still think about how wonderful it was living among nature in Shirley’s Bay

    • Thank you, Terry, for visiting my blog and commenting! The feeders on Hilda Road are only a shadow of themselves today. A few birders and photographers still put food out for them, though typically on the rocks so they can photograph the birds. I don’t recall seeing more than one or two feeders being filled last winter; there is certainly not the variety of seed and suet that there used to be, which means fewer species of birds.

      I would LOVE to see one of your eagle trees!


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