When Luck meets Birding

Snowy Owl

Snowy Owl

A successful birding outing depends on two things: knowing where to go, and luck – the kind of luck that comes from being in the right place at the right time. The last time I went birding with Deb, we went to the right places but missed just about every bird we were looking for. There is nothing more discouraging when birding, particularly in the winter when there aren’t many birds around to begin with and there are no butterflies, dragonflies or reptiles to make the outings more interesting.  Too many outings like these and it becomes tempting to put away the binoculars until spring.

Fortunately, Deb and I had the complete opposite experience on Sunday.  It was bitterly cold when we met at 8:00; it was a good thing I didn’t check the temperature before I left home, otherwise the -19°C temperature might have tempted me to stay at home in bed!

Our first stop was Riverrain Park on the Rideau River to look for the Barrow’s Goldeneye. A light mist caught and held the golden morning sunshine, lending an enchanting, ethereal beauty to the winter morning.

Rideau River bike path

A Misty January Morning

The mist was rising off the river as well. I had never seen so little open water here in the winter before; this reduced our search area drastically. About a hundred mallards lined the shore, while about 30 Common Goldeneye were actively swimming and diving in the water.

Rideau River

Rideau River

We found the male Barrow’s Goldeneye at the southern end of the “pond” created by the open water. I tried to take some pictures of him swimming in the mist but wasn’t quite able to capture the image I wanted.

Barrow's Goldeneye with Common Goldeneyes

Goldeneyes in the Mist

The only other bird of interest at Riverrain Park was a falcon, either a Merlin or a Peregrine Falcon, flying swiftly across the river. It was too cold to linger by the water, so we headed back to the car, then drove east. A number of good birds had been found overwintering in the Limoges and Ste. Rose areas, including a rare Varied Thrush, Evening Grosbeaks, Snowy Owls, Lapland Longspurs, Gray Partridges, Glaucous Gulls and Iceland Gulls.

We found the house on Calypso Street that has been hosting a Varied Thrush for a few weeks now. Close to Larose Forest, agricultural fields lined one side of the road while houses on large, treed lots were scattered across the other. There were several feeders on the property, and a number of birds were visiting them: Mourning Doves, two Hairy Woodpeckers, one Downy Woodpecker, juncos, goldfinches chickadees, Blue Jays, and American Tree Sparrows were everywhere. Then I saw the thrush on the ground beneath a feeder at the back of the property. The dark cap, dark eye-line, bright orange supercilium and throat were unmistakeable! This species breeds in the mature coniferous forests of the Pacific Northwest but regularly wanders east during the winter.

While watching the thrush I became aware of a slightly buzzy chirping sound I didn’t quite recognize. I scanned the trees at the back, and found a flock of Evening Grosbeaks sitting in the tree tops! These lovely birds are difficult to find in the Ottawa area; they are most often seen in Larose Forest. Unfortunately, neither the grosbeaks nor the Varied Thrush were close enough for any photos.

Larose Forest sign

Larose Forest

We drove through Larose Forest until we reached City Road 8, then headed south to reach the area west of Ste. Rose where the Snowy Owls had been seen. Along the way Deb spotted five large birds in a tree; we pulled over and were delighted when we identified them as Ruffed Grouse! It isn’t often that I see grouse perching in trees; they do this in the winter to feed on whatever buds are available in order to survive.

Ruffed Grouse "budding"

Ruffed Grouse "budding"

We started our search for Snowy Owls on Concession 17. They are most often seen on Concessions 19 and 20, but Deb and I thought we’d try some other back roads in the area as well. This decision paid off. Although we didn’t see any owls on Concession 17, we found about 20 Bohemian Waxwings in a small tree next to the road. There were some berry-laden shrubs next to the tree and, as we watched, a few flew down to eat the berries scattered across the snow while others landed in the shrub.

On Concession 19 we found our first Snowy Owl perched on top of a pole. We took a few photos of this gorgeous bird before it flew into the field on the north side of the road. It was almost impossible to spot it against the snow after it landed.

Snowy Owl

Snowy Owl

Snowy Owl

Snowy Owl

A little further along we spotted a large, dark raptor perched in a tree in the middle of the field. Hoping it was a Rough-legged Hawk, we stopped to check it out. When I saw the entirely dark body and white tail I knew it was something else: a Bald Eagle! This was a completely unexpected surprise; it seemed that our luck had changed for the better! We saw the Barrow’s Goldeneye, Varied Thrush, Evening Grosbeaks and Snowy Owl that we had set out to find, and found five Ruffed Grouse, several Bohemian Waxwings, and now a Bald Eagle as well! All of these were year birds for us.

We drove Concessions 20 and 21, looking for the Gray Partridge and Lapland Longspurs. We found a large flock of Snow Buntings, but they didn’t stick around for very long and I couldn’t discern any other species in the flock. The flat land, gray skies, and barren fields made the area seem very desolate.

View from Concession 21

View from Concession 21

On Concession 20 we came across another Snowy Owl.  We  took a few pictures, then headed south toward the dump on Lafleche Road where a large number of gulls have been congregating.

Snowy Owl

Snowy Owl

We found the gulls loafing in the field easily, but they were so far back it was hard to be certain of which species – other than the unmistakable Great Black-backed Gulls – were present. I picked out one large white-winged gull which was most likely a Glaucous Gull, but the distortion from the distance made it impossible to be sure. A cold wind was blowing straight off the field so Deb and I didn’t linger but instead headed north toward the highway.

We hadn’t gotten very far when Deb told me that she had just seen a group of birds in the snow at the base of the fence. She thought they might be the Gray Partridges, so I turned around. We found a spot to pull over, and then got out of the car. Deb was right – they were indeed Gray Partridges, and I counted at least 7 of them! We crossed Highway 138 and took a few pictures. This is the first time I’d seen any in a very long time!

Gray Partridge

I also noticed a few small birds flying in the field behind the car. A few landed at the base of a snow bank, and I was happy when I realized they were Horned Larks! These were the first ones I’d seen all winter. I was hoping that a few Lapland Longspurs would be with them, but didn’t see any. Pleased with these two additions to our year list, we headed back to Ottawa.

Our last stop of the day was Billings Bridge where we hoped to see the American Coot. Before we even got to the water we found a beautiful, fierce-looking Cooper’s Hawk sitting in a tree right by the area where the ducks like to congregate. Unlike nearly every other raptor we have ever seen, the hawk paid us no mind when we stopped right beneath him and took some pictures.

Cooper's Hawk

Cooper's Hawk (adult)

Down by the water, we ran into Peter Hall, who told us he hadn’t seen the coot in a few days. We told him about the Cooper’s Hawk, and even Peter was surprised by how the hawk continued to sit in the tree despite the number of people passing by and a crow sitting on a branch close by.

Deb and I called it a day after that. Although the temperature had risen to a balmy -9°C, the cold had sunk deep into our bones and we were both ready to go home and warm up. We still couldn’t believe the luck we’d had in finding nearly everything we’d set out to see. Such successful outings are few and far between, and I know I’ll treasure this one for a long time to come.


3 thoughts on “When Luck meets Birding

  1. I love your pictures! You’re absolutely right about luck playing a big role in birding, and wildlife viewing in general. It seems that I never see much when I’m out looking, but then other days I’ll be driving down the road and a bald eagle will perch in a tree, or a woodpecker will fly across the road. I’ve never won anything in my life, but such sightings can’t be attributed to anything else but luck.

    Thanks for sharing your trip and pictures!

    • Thanks for reading, Melinda! It’s also true that sometimes our best sightings occur when we aren’t looking for birds or wildlife but just happen upon them while going about our business. One morning a few years ago I left to go to work and found seven skunks (six babies and their mother) cavorting on my front lawn. It was such an adorable scene that I quietly went back inside and grabbed my camera. Another time I was heading a block away from work in downtown Ottawa on a rainy January morning and saw a Barred Owl in a tree. Sometimes I think those are the best sightings, because they are so unexpected and remind me that life is full of joy and wonder even when doing the most mundane tasks.

  2. Pingback: Highlights from 2012 | The Pathless Wood

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