Return of the Winter List

Snowshoe Hare

Snowshoe Hare

It’s that time of year again! The official winter listing period began on December 1st, and once again I am keeping a list of all of the birds I find in the Ottawa area during the months of December, January and February. While a winter list of 90 species or more in the Ottawa study area (a 50 kilometre radius centered on the Peace Tower downtown) is considered excellent, during the past five years I have only averaged 60 species per winter. My best season was last winter, when I tallied 70 species altogether!

The first two weeks of December typically bring the greatest variety of species, as many migratory birds may linger if temperatures remain mild, the lakes and rivers remain ice-free, and food supplies are abundant. Such birds may include Great Blue Herons, White-throated, Song and Fox Sparrows, Green-winged Teals, Ring-necked Ducks, Ruddy Ducks, scoters, loons, Red-winged Blackbirds, Common Grackles, etc. By the time the frigid temperatures of January set in and snowfall accumulates, however, any lingering migrants disappear and it becomes more and more difficult to add new species to the Winter List. It helps, too, if it is an invasion year; we have seen large numbers of Boreal finches and Bohemian Waxwings in the Ottawa region this past fall, so hopefully many of them stick around for the winter. It is too early to tell whether this will be an exceptional winter for seeing owls.

Only four days into December, my Winter List is up to 33 species. It was gray and cold (-8°C) on Saturday, so I bundled up and went to Mud Lake. Because the temperature has been below zero all week the pond was mostly frozen. An early freeze-up is detrimental to building a large winter list, as this means that most dabbling ducks (except Mallards and American Black Ducks) and Great Blue Herons have already flown south. I found plenty of Canada Geese, Mallards and American Black Ducks at Mud Lake, and to my surprise I did see one other dabbling duck – a lone female Wood Duck running across the lawn just east of the ridge toward the river. I was in my car at the time, driving to Britannia Point, and by the time I parked the car and made it over to the water she had vanished. There were lots of mallards and geese swimming close to the shore, so she might have simply been hidden among them; while searching I found this interesting individual which appears to be some sort of domestic goose hybrid.

Hybrid Goose

Hybrid Goose (Not countable)

I also found a few House Finches and Dark-eyed Juncos near the feeders on Cassels Street and two female Red-breasted Mergansers at Britannia Point – a new species for my Mud Lake list! Elsewhere that day I had a flock of about a dozen Pine Grosbeaks, two different flocks of Common Redpolls, and a Red-tailed Hawk.

Sunday was mild and rainy, but I managed to get in a 30-minute walk at Sarsaparilla Trail while waiting for the stores to open. I added Red-breasted Nuthatch (two males and a female) and Blue Jay to my Winter List and that was it. I completely forgot about trying to entice the Blue Jay to feed from my hand when he landed in a tree close to me, and I tossed him some peanuts.

I was off work yesterday, and the weather was mild and overcast. I spent some time at the Fletcher Wildlife Garden, the Arboretum and Dow’s Lake and added Bohemian Waxwing, Hooded Merganser and Great Black-backed Gull to my list. From there it was off to the west end where I spent some time at the Hilda Road feeders. The only new bird there was American Tree Sparrow, but I was delighted to find a Snowshoe Hare beneath the feeders! I had gotten out of the car to check the shrubs for other birds, and when I turned around I saw a large white mammal sitting on top of one of the small wooden tables. Of course I had left my camera in the car, and when I went back for it the Snowshoe Hare turned around and bounded into the thickets.

Snowshoe Hare

Snowshoe Hare

I could still see him sitting beneath the shrubs, so I got back into my car and waited. About ten minutes later he came back out and approached the feeder area. He then hopped up onto one of the smaller tables and began munching on the bird seed!

Snowshoe Hare

Snowshoe Hare

As all the snow from last week has melted, his white pelage really stood out against the green and brown background. It takes about ten weeks for the coat of a Snowshoe Hare to completely change color from summer brown to winter white, and given the amount of brown remaining on this fellow’s face and back, I estimate it will take another two weeks or so until he is entirely white. Hopefully by that time there will be enough snow on the ground to help camouflage him against predators.

Snowshoe Hare

Snowshoe Hare

The Snowshoe Hare is one of my favourite mammals, though I don’t encounter them as often as I would like. Seeing one at Shirley’s Bay yesterday was definitely the highlight of my weekend!

14 thoughts on “Return of the Winter List

    • Thanks Rebecca! Yes, I see their tracks and scat in the woods more often that I see the animal itself. This is only the third hare I’ve seen this year, and one of those two was seen in this location as well (though not at the feeders!)

  1. We ran into two snowshoe hares that were under the boardwalk out off of Moodie Drive two winters ago – have to agree it is a treat to see them!

    • Hi Urban Girl! Was this at Jack Pine Trail? I’ve seen a couple there, too, including one on the boardwalk while I was leading a birding group last year. I usually see lots of tracks there in the winter, so I think there are probably a few Snowshoe Hares around – they’re just difficult to spot!

    • Thanks Marsha! Yes, I think they are much lovelier in the winter than in the summer, though it’s neat to see them in the middle of the transition like this fellow. I just love their huge feet, too!

  2. Good look on the winter listing! You’re doing better than me so far…the quarry pond, where I saw lots of lingering ducks this time last year, was a bust.

    • Yeah, it was for me too. When I went on Saturday it was mostly frozen, and all I saw were a lot of Canada Geese and a lot of gulls sitting on the ice with their backs to me. Went to Shirley’s Bay on Monday and it was a bust, too….no diving ducks other than Common Goldeneyes or Common Mergansers, and the Bald Eagles declined to put in an appearance.

  3. Did a few years of “winter bird listing” back in the ’90’s & early ’00’s… then lost interest, mostly because I already keep a lot of “lists” that mean more to me (year-over-year dragonflies, butterflies, fish, mammals, reptiles & amphibians, Ottawa-Gatineau “50K” birds, Ontario birds, Canada birds, life birds, etc. etc. etc!) Now I just try to put up with winter, and enjoy whatever nature offers — like Snowshoe Hares 🙂
    …but I agree, lists are great motivators, for getting people OUT THERE!
    (PS – Gillian, love the little “snowflakes” that keep drifting across this page!…a bit lighter than the ones out there right now!)

    • Hi Chris! Okay, a fish list?! That’s one I’ve never heard before!

      I should start keeping year lists for butterflies and dragonflies, but have been too lazy to maintain them. Something to aim for in the new year, I guess! Mammal and herp lists are a bit easier, especially when I have days where I find three different salamanders in the same spot! Then at the end of the season I realize I’ve forgotten to record common species like Green Frogs or Bull Frogs…sigh…!

      One thing I like about WordPress is that it allows me to create pages as well as blog posts, and so I have been using pages to keep track of my winter lists and year lists for birds. And yes, I love the snowflakes too…WordPress makes this feature available in December for the holidays. And you don’t have to shovel it off the bottom of the page like you have to shovel real snow off your driveway! 😉

  4. OK, how did you get it to snow on you blog page? I must have the wrong page layout. Anyway, I’d die to see a Harlequin Duck and a Black-backed Woodpecker, especially somewhere down here. As for the Ross’s Geese, they’ve not been seen since this afternoon.

    • Hi Les, Go to your dashboard -> settings -> general and look for a checkbox that says “snow” near the bottom. I think they usually keep the snow until the beginning of January; this is only my second year on WordPress and I quite like it!

      I hope the Ross’s Geese flew somewhere safe. 😦

  5. Pingback: Highlights from 2012 | The Pathless Wood

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