The weekend forecast looked gray and rainy so I didn’t make any plans with Deb or Leah to go out birding together. However, by the time I awoke on Sunday the rain had stopped, so I ventured over to Jack Pine Trail to see if any new migrants had arrived. A couple of robins were foraging near the trail entrance, more interested in searching for bugs and other critters in the leaf litter than in me. I hadn’t gone too far when movement at my feet caught my attention. A small rodent was ambling along the vegetation at the side of the trail, pausing in the open from time to time just long enough for me to get a decent view. Even in the overcast gloom I noticed that it seemed quite reddish, so I took some photos despite the twigs in the way. My photos showed a clear reddish patch on top of its back, gray fur on the sides, and a white belly. I suspected it was a Red-backed Vole, and when I sent my photo to Christine H., she and Stephen confirmed my suspicion. This was a new mammal for me, and my first of the day!
The species that lives in Eastern Ontario is the Southern Red-backed Vole (Clethrionomys gapperi). It is common and widespread, living in mixed wood environments close to bogs and marshlands, particularly in areas where there is plenty of ground cover such as stumps, logs, brush piles and tree roots. These small voles are active all year round and may forage either during the night or day, frequently traveling though underground passages when they forage. They usually do not create their own runways, instead relying on those made by other small mammals such as shrews or moles. Southern Red-backed voles are opportunistic feeders whose diet depends upon the seasons. They eat young shoots in the spring, fruits and berries in the summer, and nuts and seeds in the fall. Other sources of food include bark, roots, lichens, fungi, and insects. In the winter the voles continue to forage beneath the snow cover for seeds, tree roots, and bark.
I was thrilled to see a new mammal species; my only disappointment was that I didn’t get a good enough photo showing the entire animal. Now that I know they live at Jack Pine Trail, however, I will definitely keep an eye out for them!
As I continued walking down the trail I became aware that a number of birds were singing. A male cardinal was singing in a tree close by, and in the dense thickets I could hear juncos and American Tree Sparrows! I wasn’t sure whether the juncos were new spring arrivals or had overwintered here, but the sounds of their soft, musical trilling was wonderful.
At the first boardwalk I saw a Fox Sparrow and a Northern Flicker flying across the marsh. Both were definitely new arrivals, and the Fox Sparrow was a year bird for me (Deb and I had seen the flicker overwintering at Mud Lake on January 1st). I listened for the sound of Swamp Sparrows singing in the cattails but heard only a few Song Sparrows.
In the woods I saw several chipmunks, Red Squirrels and Eastern Grey Squirrels scampering about. A porcupine sleeping in a tree was my fifth mammal species of the day. I also came across a small flock of Golden-crowned Kinglets in the woods; I assumed they were new arrivals as I didn’t see or hear any here all winter. They were singing, as were Brown Creepers and Purple Finches.
I left the main network of trails and followed a connecting trail at the back where I had seen several Mustard Whites and a couple of Henry’s Elfins two years ago. Although it was too cold for butterflies, a pair of Red-breasted Nuthatches flew up to me looking for food. I was happy to oblige, and spent some time feeding them and the chickadees. I found my first Great Blue Heron of the year and a single Hooded Merganser (male) in a large swampy pond just beyond the main path. The heron was standing on a stump in the middle of the water; there were no other water birds around except for a couple of mallards which later flew in.
As I made my way back to Jack Pine Trail, I observed a large, buffy-coloured canine rounding a corner. Dogs are allowed (on leash) on this section of the trail, and as I had already encountered two on my walk, I didn’t think much of it…until it slipped silently into the woods. I turned the corner, and only when I realized there was nobody in sight did it occur to me that it wasn’t a dog, but a coyote. It was probably walking down the trail until it saw (or heard) me coming. I was struck by how silent it was, and how completely it vanished. The trees were fairly thick along this part of the trail, but even so the animal clearly did not want to be seen.
The more I pondered this encounter, the more dream-like it seemed. I never even thought of taking its picture, for it was gone before I realized it wasn’t just a dog wandering off-leash. The coyote was the sixth mammal I had seen that day, and also the most mysterious. As I have only ever seen coyotes in agricultural fields before, it never occurred to me that I might encounter one in the middle of the woods!