It is a peaceful place. Because it’s such a small trail, I usually don’t encounter many people there, especially very early in the morning at this time of year when the temperature is hovers around 0°C and there is still frost on the grass. The chickadees eagerly seek me out, often followed by the nuthatches, Blue Jays and squirrels, and I can talk to them without worrying about what anybody thinks.
I stopped there on Saturday after an unfruitful search for some winter finches to photograph. As usual, I left a handful of seed on the bench at the entrance to the woods. I didn’t get very far before encountering a Hairy Woodpecker working on a fallen tree and a Red Squirrel munching on a cone.
As I was photographing the squirrel I heard the unmistakeable sound of Bohemian Waxwings flying overhead. I looked up in time to see them land on top of a tree by the picnic shelter; I followed a deer path through the woods and out into the open where I took a good look at them. There must have been about 80 birds altogether, and they had found some berries at the top of the tree. They gorged themselves for only a little while before flying off again; when they flew, I heard the call of a Pine Grosbeak as well. Later, I heard a Common Redpoll calling as it flew over the trail. The redpoll and the Bohemian Waxwings were new species for my Sarsaparilla list.
I resumed my walk through the woods but didn’t find anything of interest until I reached the boardwalk. There I found the usual chickadees and a White-breasted Nuthatch searching for food, so I put some more seed on top of the boardwalk rail while I scanned the pond.
The pond was completely frozen. All the waterfowl had vanished, with the exception of two Canada Geese flying overhead. There was no sign of life in the marsh; it looks like I’ll have to wait until spring for it to come alive again.
In the meantime, the chickadees continued to fly in and take a seed (or two, when they could manage to fit them both in their mouth!) from the boardwalk rail. Since it’s been a while since I’ve photographed any chickadees, I hung around for a while and took pictures each time one landed on the rail.
Three Blue Jays saw the activity and flew in to check it out; this is one of the few trails where I’ve actually had these birds follow me while walking around the woods. Every time I stopped to feed the chickadees, one or two would land on a tree branch above my head and wait for me to toss them some peanuts. Then, when I moved on and stopped to feed another group, the Blue Jays would fly in and land on another tree branch close by! I always reward them when I can.
The Red-breasted Nuthatch is another friendly bird that has learned to view humans as a source of food. I’ve had these guys follow me around as well, preferring to take the seed from my hand rather than from the rock or bench where I usually leave some for the chickadees. Two of them came to take advantage of the seed I had put out, a male and a female.
According to Ron Pittaway’s Winter Finch Forecast, a widespread cone crop failure in the Northeast has resulted the departure of a large number of Red-breasted Nuthatches from the province this past summer. He predicted that most of these irruptive birds will leave the eastern half of the province for the winter, but some will probably remain in northwestern Ontario where cone crops are much better. Apparently the two nuthatches I found at Sarsaparilla weren’t informed of this; it will be interesting to see if these two remain here the entire winter. Given that Red-breasted Nuthatches migrate southward earlier than many irruptive species, leaving in July and reaching their southernmost point by September or October, it seems likely that these two will stay.
I was happy to get photos of both the male and the female, as most of my photos tend to be of males. The male has bright, bold colours compared to the female; his chest is a bright, burnt-orange while his cap and eyeline are black. In contrast, the female’s colours are muted; her cap is a soft gray-blue colour, her breast a pale orange.
Normally I find it difficult to photograph these birds when I’m feeding them, as they usually take what they want and then fly off quickly. These two were not in a big rush to fly off with their bounty, but instead lingered long enough for me to get some photos of them sitting still for a second or two.
In this photo the Blue Jay seems to be looking at me as if to say, “Yes, but where are the peanuts?!” It didn’t stop him from flying off with the sunflower seeds! You can see the ice-covered pond in the background.
While feeding the birds I became aware of the sound of several Dark-eyed Juncos calling. When I looked up I saw about ten of them hopping about on the ground, eventually coming onto the boardwalk in their search for food. Although they typically prefer millet prefer over sunflower seeds, I scattered some seed on the ground for them. However, they are skittish birds, and immediately flew back into the woods. A Red Squirrel seized the opportunity to move in and steal their food.
Eventually the two White-breasted Nuthatches lurking in the woods flew out onto the boardwalk to take some seed, too. They were too quick for a photo, perhaps because they are more wary than their smaller cousins and less inclined to linger. Because White-breasted Nuthatches are found mainly in deciduous forests and do not depend on conifer seeds in winter the way Red-breasted Nuthatches do, they are not migratory and do not irrupt south with the Red-breasted Nuthatches. I was happy to spend some time with both, as well as the other birds that call Sarsaparilla Trail home during the winter.