Before the Solstice

Pileated Woodpecker

Pileated Woodpecker

At this time of year Ottawa receives just under nine hours of daylight each day and the days are still getting shorter. There is barely any light in the sky when I leave home at 7:30 in the morning or work at 4:30 in the afternoon, and there have been more overcast days this month than sunny ones. With only a few days of sun so far this December, it is literally the darkest time of the year.

A little bit of snow and freezing rain earlier this week has laid down a thin, white, icy crust on the lawns and woodland trails that bears little resemblance to the “winter wonderland” of song. Enough grass is visible on some streets that it doesn’t even look like winter, although with the temperature today rising to only -6°C, it sure feels like it.

I was off work on Wednesday and managed to get some birding in that morning. I was hoping to find some white-winged gulls at Andrew Haydon Park and Ottawa beach, but Lac Deschenes had frozen from shore to shore overnight and there were no gulls in sight. The geese have left, too, all but one sitting in a field on Carling Avenue near Rifle Road.

I stopped by the Hilda Road feeders after driving by Andrew Haydon Park, hoping to see the Snowshoe Hare again. To my surprise a Merlin was sitting in a tall tree, keeping a keen eye on the feeders where a few nervous chickadees and a very vocal White-breasted Nuthatch were eating. Although I’ve been visiting the feeders now for six years, I’d never seen the resident Merlin here before, even though I’d often arrived just after it had left. I slid into the passenger seat of my car and cracked down the window in order to take a few pictures, and that’s when the Merlin decided to attack. It flew swiftly toward my window, then swooped in low over the car’s hood and disappeared – all too quickly for me to react! The birds all scattered, and I got out of my car figuring my presence couldn’t disturb the birds any more than the Merlin’s.


After walking around a bit I found the Merlin in another tree overlooking the feeders, clearly unsuccessful in its attempt to catch anything. Twenty years ago, while research was being conducted for the first Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Ontario (1981-1985), the Merlin was considered uncommon to rare in southern and eastern Ontario. Its population has increased dramatically since then, partly because of its success in colonizing urban areas where House Sparrows and other small birds are abundant, and in Ottawa it is now one of our most common raptors. I find them both fierce and cute, and seeing them always makes me smile – even if they pose a deadly threat to the chickadees and sparrows.

Today I was pleased to see the sun shining in a bright, wide blue sky and managed to get another hour’s birding in before taking my cat to the vet for his annual shots. I drove over to the Beaver Trail in Stony Swamp, a place I haven’t visited since before the drought and forest fire last July. When I arrived at the parking lot, at least one crow and one raven were lurking in the woods close by; both flew off when I got out of the car, although the raven only flew as far as the hydro tower beyond the parking lot.

Common Raven

Common Raven

There were lots of Wild Turkey tracks in the snow between the trail entrance and the Wild Bird Care Centre, so I headed that way to see if they were around. I didn’t find the turkeys, but a loud tapping led me to one of my target birds for the day, a beautiful female Pileated Woodpecker sitting on a tree trunk about four feet off the ground! With the ice crunching loudly beneath my boots there was no way I could approach the bird with any stealth, but I kept my distance and she didn’t seem too bothered by me.

Pileated Woodpecker

Pileated Woodpecker

Several chickadees flew in to greet me as I walked the trail, while a group of Common Redpolls flew by overhead. Near the observation platform I noticed this “Road Closure” sign in the middle of the woods, which perplexed me as there is no road or trail beyond it, just a small, wooded swamp where I often hear Purple Finches and Winter Wrens singing in the spring. The standing water had all frozen, and the area was much more open than I recalled; there were several trees lying down across the water. Although the trees all looked like they had been uprooted rather than chopped down, I wondered if the fire fighters had brought them down in order to create a fire break last July in order to protect the Wild Bird Care Centre, which had remained under the threat of evacuation during the brush fire. The bridge connecting the Beaver Trail to the Lime Kiln Trail had also been roped off.

Swamp Closure

Swamp Closure

I continued on my way, much more pleased to see frozen water beneath the boardwalk at the second marsh, for this marsh had completely dried up last summer after the drought. I had seen water snakes and turtles and even a beaver here in years past, but for the past two or three years the marsh had ended up bone-dry by the end of summer. I’m hoping enough snow will fall this winter to increase the water levels both here and at the Richmond Lagoons.

In the woods, I startled a Ruffed Grouse sitting beneath a spruce tree next to the path. It exploded into flight just as I walked by, startling me badly enough to make my heart leap in my chest – which is why I sometimes refer to these birds as “heart-attack birds”! It flew off into the woods and disappeared, and even though I only caught a brief glimpse of the grouse, it was enough for me to add it to my list of birds seen at the Beaver Trail.

I also saw several tunnels just beneath the icy surface, likely made by mice, shrews or voles which are active all year-round. In the winter these animals construct tunnels in the subnivean zone between the earth and the snow pack. This insulated environment remains at relatively stable temperatures of about 0°C regardless of the temperature of the air above, and provides protection from predators such as foxes, coyotes, hawks and owls. Food is plentiful beneath the snow, and these small rodents dine on grasses, seeds and the live bark of shrubs and saplings all winter long without needing to travel to the snow’s surface. Red Squirrels also dig tunnels down through the snow to reach stashes of coniferous cones that they created throughout the late summer and fall. Once a stash has been depleted, the squirrels moves on to another stash and dens there.

Vole Tunnels

Tunnels beneath the Snow

Finally, some Wild Turkey tracks in the snow. Although their tracks were everywhere, I didn’t see a single turkey in the woods.

Wild Turkey Tracks

Wild Turkey Tracks

The mild temperatures have caused the snow to start melting, which makes the tracks look larger than they really are. An oak leaf on the ground serves as a point of reference in the photo below, making it look as though Big Bird has been taking a stroll along the Beaver Trail.

Wild Turkey Tracks

Wild Turkey Tracks

I heard at least one Pine Grosbeak calling during my walk, adding to the day’s tally; with the Ruffed Grouse and Common Redpolls, that makes three new additions to my list of bird species seen at the Beaver Trail and two additions to my Winter List. Not bad for a brief outing just a few short days before the Winter Solstice!

7 thoughts on “Before the Solstice

  1. Lovely shot of the Pileated. Especially like the tail bracing. I came across a Pileated a few years ago and rather than trying to be quiet I pished a little bit just to see what would happen. Well, she froze for about a minute. She had a little bit of bark in her bill and she just sat motionless. After a few photos (maybe I felt slightly guilty) she carried on. My best Pileated shot to date.

    Pileated Woodpecker frozen

    • It’s a beautiful shot, Chris; her forehead almost looks gold in colour! I’ve never noticed that before. I also did a double-take when I saw your Flickr screen name, Aegolius, since that’s the name I use for my old Photobucket account! It’s darned hard to find a good screen name that isn’t taken AND that contains every vowel (excluding “y”, of course!) 😀

      I’ve been lucky with a couple of Pileated Woodpeckers, but I like this one because of the golden morning light shining on her.

  2. Love the Pileated shot, it may be my favorite photo of yours ever…the ray of light striking her face is very dramatic. Also love the menacing gleam in that Merlin’s eye 🙂

    Yesterday I found the Wood Duck at Mud Lake that you had mentioned seeing earlier in December. Her wing appears to be injured. I hope she survives the winter and heals up.

      • When I saw her she was with the Mallard flock that was camping out near the Cassels feeders. Se seemed ill at ease with their lifestyle though, and I never saw her actually come up to feed; instead she trailed along after a Black Duck who was looking for natural food in holes in the ice. Maybe she comes to the feeders when no one’s around.

  3. My goodness, Gillian, you were very lucky to get close enough to that Pileated to take its picture. Great shot! We have them rapping away on dead wood behind our house. They always look so prehistoric. Our ground-cover sounds about the same as yours. Just a crust. The main roads are clear, but it’s hard to walk to the mailbox. I posted on FB that we have an ermine (white weasel or stoat as some fellow insisted) hanging around our woodpile. Would love to get a picture but he’s way too fast.

    • Hi Kathy! The Pileated Woodpeckers are magnificent, aren’t they? Sometimes they are skittish, but more often than not I find I am able to get close enough to them to get shots like this.

      We had one day of freezing rain yesterday and now it’s snowing, so I’m sure it will be a messy walk to the bus stop this morning. I wish I didn’t have to go out in this weather! Why can’t it just snow instead?!

      I’m jealous of your weasel! I’ve seen a couple of Short-tailed Weasels here in Ottawa, and the only way I’ve been able to get photos of them is to still quietly and wait for them to pop up out of the rocks they are hiding in. If you’re interested, here are a few photos on my photo gallery. I haven’t seen one for a couple of years now, and hope to see one again soon!

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