After several days of temperatures rising above the freezing mark, winter returned with a vengeance on Friday when between 15 and 20 cm fell during the afternoon and overnight. The sun came out on Saturday, but a blustery wind prevented me from going out to look for new species to add my winter list. This is the last weekend for winter listing, and I was hoping to chase down the Green-winged Teal on March Valley Road and check out Stony Swamp for Golden-crowned Kinglets before my outing with Deb on Sunday. The weather on Saturday put an end to that idea.
Sunday, however, was much calmer. It was -13°C when I left to meet Deb, but the sun was shining and the wind wasn’t as bad. Deb and I decided to drive up to the northwestern section of Gatineau Park to look for eagles and winter finches, both of which have been consistently found along Steele Line and the Eardley-Masham Road this winter. Never having birded this area before (my butterfly outing last June hardly counts), I wasn’t sure what to expect.
The drive didn’t seem all that long, and the only birds of interest we encountered was a flock of Snow Buntings. I missed my turn once on the way there (and twice on the way back) because the street signs were so small and I couldn’t read them until I was already in the intersection. The views of the escarpment were breath-taking, and we were surprised that we didn’t see a single bird of prey on the drive up.
We encountered our first finches on one of the side roads leading up to Steele Line. Three birds were standing on the road, feeding on grit. I didn’t stop early enough to avoid causing them all to flee up into the trees, but when they returned we noticed they were all Pine Siskins, a streaky little finch that looks a lot like a female House Finch except for the sharp, pointy beak and the subtle yellow edgings on the wings and tail. This nomadic finch ranges widely and erratically across the continent each winter in response to seed crops; as such, they may be abundant one winter and absent the next.
There were lots of Blue Jays in the area. We heard them every time we stopped the car and saw several flying over. We heard more Pine Siskins as we drove along Steele Line Road, and found a few picking up grit on the road at the corner of Steele Line and Wilson. While watching the siskins, I noticed a red bird sitting in a tree close to the road. I couldn’t tell what it was at first, so Deb and I got out of the car for a better look. That’s when the red finch flew down and landed in the road right in front of us!
We immediately identified it as our target species, the Red Crossbill. He was larger than the siskins and his unique bill was apparent when viewed in profile. The Red Crossbill differs from the White-winged Crossbill in that its wings are darkish black with no white wingbars. His colouration reminded me a bit of a male Scarlet Tanager!
Females are yellowish-green instead of red and have the same dark wings and crossed bills. One landed on the road in front of us, and when we looked up into the trees we realized there were about eight crossbills present altogether!
Eventually a car came along and scared the birds into flight. We, too, got in our car and continued driving west along Steele Line. A little further along we saw another pair of crossbills on the road (both females), a couple of ravens flying over the field, and an adult Bald Eagle! The eagle was being chased by a crow and flew right over our car as it tried to evade its tormentor. We were hoping that it would land in a tree close by, but the eagle circled around back up toward the escarpment.
We didn’t see much else as we drove around the area, so we headed back to the corner of Wilson and Steele Line. The finches were still there, picking up grit from the road. Seed-eating birds frequently ingest dirt, sand, pebbles, or broken eggshells to help grind up their food as it sits in their gizzard. Grit also provides minerals once the grit itself has been ground down and dissolved in the gizzard. Because of their need for grit, finches are often found on the road. We found between six and ten birds at the corner of Wilson, including a male and female Red Crossbill, a male Purple Finch, and several Pine Siskins. The crossbills were the least wary of the group, and often landed close to where we were standing before flying back up into the trees.
This was a life bird for both Deb and I and the only boreal finch missing from my life list. It is also the most difficult to classify given that the Red Crossbill complex comprises at least ten types or forms with different vocalizations and bill sizes related to cone preferences. These crossbill types may be at an early stage of evolving into full species and some may already qualify for species status. They are exceedingly difficult to identify in the field and much remains to be learned about their status and distribution.
Types 2, 3 and probably 4 occur regularly in Ontario (Simard in Atlas of Breeding Birds of Ontario 2007). Type 3 (sitkensis subspecies) has the smallest bill and prefers small hemlock cones and spruce cones in Ontario. Its bill is even smaller than the White-winged Crossbill’s stubby bill. Type 4 has a medium-sized bill is adapted to white pine cones. These crossbills may be found in Algonquin Park when the extensive white pine forest there has a good cone crop. An infrequent presumed Type 2 Red Crossbill is associated with red pine forests.
Most types are almost impossible to identify without recordings of their flight calls. The crossbills, like the siskins, were kept chirping and twittering away while we were watching them, but I didn’t even think of taking any recordings. I didn’t see any feeding on any cones, either, which might have helped to identify which type these were. Unless (until) these different types are split into full, separate species, however, the Red Crossbill counts as a full species on my life list. If a split does occur in the future, then this sighting will be demoted to a “crossbill sp.”
When another car came along we decided to head out. Next on the agenda was the Eardley-Masham Road, one of the premier winter birding areas in the Ottawa Circle. This part of Gatineau Park is renowned for the being one of the best spots in the Ottawa Circle to see both Bald and Golden Eagles either soaring above or perched along the escarpment. Other boreal species usually found here in the winter include Black-backed Woodpeckers and both crossbill species. American Three-toed Woodpeckers and Gray Jays have been found here very rarely.
Almost the first bird we saw driving up the escarpment was an adult Bald Eagle soaring high in the sky. This was our second and last eagle of the day. We drove from one end of Eardley-Masham to the other encountering more Pine Siskins, one White-winged Crossbill on the road, and two Red Crossbills. We heard a couple of Black-capped Chickadees, but the road was pretty quiet compared to the Steele Line Road. We noticed a few trails leading off into the woods, but there were no parking areas and the trails seemed no wider than deer tracks. The only trail which looked navigable (in my snowshoes, anyway) lay directly across from Ramsay Lake but was limited to skiers only. Several cars were parked along the road, their occupants presumably out skiing.
We left the park after a fruitless search for Golden Eagles, still pleased with the day’s outing. The addition of the Red and White-winged Crossbills to my winter list brought the total up to 70 species; with only one day left in February I doubt I will add to that number.