The End of March

Red-winged Blackbird (Female)

Saturday started off cloudy but cold as I headed to the Beaver Trail for an early-morning walk; I had to put gloves on to keep my hands warm until the sun came out. Juncos were singing in the woods, and I witnessed a couple of Hairy Woodpeckers chasing each other around a dead stump. I had just passed the Wild Bird Care Centre and was walking toward the marsh when I heard the distinct, wheezy song of an Eastern Phoebe. It kept singing long enough for me to catch up with the bird in the parking lot by the WBCC; this is not the first time I’d seen one here, as I’d come across one in the spring of 2007. They used to nest on the side of the building, although I don’t know whether they still do. The phoebe was sitting in a tree high above my head, flicking its tail as it sang. It seemed too cold for any insects to be flying yet, and I didn’t see the phoebe attempt any flycatching. The sun was supposed to come out later, however, and I’m sure both the phoebe and I would appreciate the warmth once it did!

As I circled the building to get back to the trail I noticed a Turkey Vulture in the outdoor pen, likely the same bird I had seen here a year ago. As there is no roof on this cage, it seemed clear that the vulture couldn’t fly. He tried when he saw me, extending one huge wing into the air.

Turkey Vulture attempting to fly

Eventually he settled down and stood calmly on the picnic table. When pair of chipmunks scampered between the wires of his cage he eyed them curiously but didn’t move.

Turkey Vulture close-up

In the woods, at least five robins all in one area were tossing up leaves in search of their own breakfast. As I stopped to photograph them I heard the distinctive songs of Brown Creeper and Golden-crowned Kinglet.  I didn’t see the creeper, but the kinglet was foraging low in the branches of a bare deciduous tree.

American Robin providing a splash of colour on a gloomy day

I found a couple more kinglets and some chickadees by the first pond at the observation platform. I put some food out for the chickadees and was amused to see a few American Tree Sparrows join them.  These birds are winter residents and will soon be flying north to their breeding grounds.

American Tree Sparrow

At one point the chickadees froze, and when I gazed skyward I recognized the unmistakable silhouette of a falcon flying quickly over the trees.  It was probably a Merlin, but without a good look at its markings I couldn’t be sure.  Shortly after that a couple of Wood Ducks flew into the marsh, but when I checked the pond I only saw a couple of mallards and Canada Geese. In the past I’d seen Pied-billed Grebes, Ring-necked Ducks and Hooded Mergansers here.

There wasn’t much to see at the next boardwalk, either, until I put some more seeds on the railing and a male Red-winged Blackbird flew in.

Red-winged Blackbird (male)

He was joined by a second bird, this one a female! Female Red-winged Blackbirds arrive a few weeks after the males; this is the first one I’d seen this spring.  In fact, I think this is the first one I’ve seen in the month of March.  They look nothing like the males, but are heavily streaked like an overgrown sparrow or finch.  The sharp, pointed bill and hint of orange or yellow on the face and throat (not visible in this individual) help to identify this as a blackbird; the pale supercilium is also distinctive, though female Purple Finches also have a strong white “eyebrow” (see below).

Red-winged Blackbird (female)

Red-winged Blackbird (female)

I didn’t see anything new on the rest of my walk, and headed next door to Jack Pine Trail. I met Bruce Di Labio just after I arrived, and when he told me there were three Fox Sparrows at the feeder, I made that my first stop. The Fox Sparrows weren’t there, but two female Purple Finches were enjoying the sunflower seeds when I arrived.  These streaky birds are not purple like the males, but their short, conical bill and strongly notched tail helps to identify them as finches.  A couple of White-breasted Nuthatches, a Hairy Woodpecker, and several chickadees were also taking turns at the feeder.

Female Purple Finches

After leaving the feeder movement in a large brush pile next to the path caught my attention. I thought I heard a Winter Wren scold me with a quiet “dit-dit”, but it wasn’t repeated and I didn’t get a good look at the bird that scurried into the depths of the brush pile. I did see a couple of voles, and the only one that paused long enough for a good look was a Southern Red-backed Vole. After staring intently at the brush pile for several minutes, hoping for either the wren or the vole to reappear, I gave up and continued my walk.  I didn’t see any other mammals this time other than the usual squirrels and chipmunks.

Eastern Chipmunk

I finally found the Fox Sparrows a little further along the trail. There were only two of them, and they were sitting in a brush pile, preening themselves. These sparrows are not the easiest to photograph, and even though they were sitting still there were too many branches in the way to obtain a photo.  A couple of juncos and a single American Tree Sparrow were feeding on spilled seeds on the ground, but juncos are notoriously skittish and quickly flew away when they saw me coming.  This tree sparrow was more cooperative.

American Tree Sparrow

I checked the alvar at the southern end of the conservation area and the marsh at the back of the trail but didn’t see any new species.   In the woods, I was hand-feeding four White-breasted Nuthatches when a shrieking group of crows plunged into the forest, startling me; a large, brownish bird was at the center of the mob, but I didn’t get a good look at it as it landed on the ground behind the large trunk of a fallen tree.  The crows continued screaming for a couple of minutes, until the object of their attention – a large bird of prey – took to the air again. This time I saw the bright reddish tail of a Red-tailed Hawk as it flew up to the sky.  The crows quickly followed, leaving me and the four nuthatches bewildered by this bizarre encounter and the sudden silence.

Unexpected encounters such as these are what keep birding interesting; they remind me that nature is unpredictable, and that random, chance encounters can happen any time!

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