Along the Rideau River

Cooper's Hawk

Cooper’s Hawk

On Boxing Day I spent some time along the Rideau River, opting to enjoy the peace of nature rather than the bustling malls full of shoppers looking for deals. A male Barrow’s Goldeneye and at least one Glaucous Gull had been seen around the Hurdman bridge in the last week, and I was hoping to add these species to my winter list. I decided to stop in at Billings Bridge as well, as this is another good spot to look for gulls and mammals such as River Otter, Beaver and Muskrat.

As usual, I parked at the mall and crossed Riverside Drive to get to the park. The deep snow made walking difficult, and a quick scan revealed no mallards or mammals in the open water near the small parking lot. I walked along the river toward Bank Street, seeing one adult Herring Gull and five Great Black-backed Gulls standing on the ice, as well as two Common Mergansers, several Common Goldeneyes, and hundreds of mallards near the bridge.

Across the river I noticed a Great Black-backed Gull standing on the ice right next to the shore. I find it difficult to get close to these birds, so when I saw a couple of people walking along the path right next to the shore without disturbing him, I decided to walk over there myself. Once I got closer, I realized he was eating a dead mallard on the ice. He didn’t pay any attention to me until I stopped on the shore above where he was standing, and then he started edging closer to the water. I took a few pictures and then started to leave.

Great Black-backed Gull

Great Black-backed Gull

A harsh, drawn-out cry from a crow caught my attention; it was the same call I had heard when the crows were harassing the Barred Owl at Hurdman over a month ago, so I went to investigate. I found a juvenile Cooper’s Hawk sitting in a tree close to the river. She was looking down at something on the ground, but all I could see were a couple of crows. Then I realized they were eating a dead pigeon, and that the Cooper’s Hawk was interested in their food! After a few minutes the crows flew off, and the hawk flew down to the ground to feed.

Juvenile Cooper's Hawk

Juvenile Cooper’s Hawk

I made my way down to the water’s edge where I had an unobstructed view of the hawk. I edged closer, and although the hawk knew I was there, she seemed more concerned with protecting her meal than in fleeing from me. Feathers were flying as she plucked the pigeon in between bites, and at one point a black squirrel scrambled up onto a thick branch above her and looked down as though he, too, wanted a bite to eat! He stayed there for a few moments, then scurried off once it became clear that the hawk wasn’t sharing.

Cooper's Hawk

Cooper’s Hawk

I was about eight or ten feet away from the hawk when I took these photos. As Cooper’s Hawks attain adult plumage in their second year, this is a hatch-year bird and it will keep its juvenal plumage through the winter. Juveniles differ from adults in that their eyes are yellow instead of reddish-orange, and in that their breast is white with fine, vertical brown streaking. Note also the thick legs characteristic of this species in the images above.

Cooper's Hawk

Cooper’s Hawk

Females are larger than males, and given the size of this bird I am guessing that it is a female.

Cooper's Hawk

Cooper’s Hawk

Since I was so close and the bird was not disturbed by my presence, I took a short video of her eating. This is not something I often see hawks doing while I’m out birding, so I felt pretty awed while watching her.

After taking my fill of photos and video, I left the hawk to her meal and walked beneath the bridge to check out the ducks on the other side of Bank Street. There I found at least 200 dabbling ducks including a few American Black Ducks and at least one mallard-black duck hybrid. I was hoping to find something more interesting among the flock, like a Wood Duck or a Green-winged Teal, but I didn’t see any other species.

From there I went to Hurdman Park, where I found the male Barrow’s Goldeneye rather easily. Winter just wouldn’t be the same without one of these handsome ducks overwintering along this stretch of the Rideau River! I walked beneath the 417 bridge almost all the way to the tennis club but was unable to locate the Glaucous Gull. I did see a juvenile Herring Gull, six Great Black-backed Gulls and one muskrat feeding at the edge of the ice near the bridge.

Muskrat

Muskrat

Muskrats do not hibernate in the winter, but remain active all year round. Like beavers, they build lodges in the banks of waterways with the entrance deep enough below the water’s surface so that it will not freeze. This enables the muskrat to leave its lodge to eat even when the water’s surface is frozen. They will also chew through the ice so they can forage for food out of the water. After creating an opening in the ice, the muskrats build a cover above the opening, called a push-up, out of cattails, grasses and mud.

Muskrat

Muskrat

A single Ring-billed Gull, still with some juvenal plumage of its own, was also sitting near the water’s edge with the mallards. Most of these gulls have left town now that the rivers are now mostly frozen over and a deep blanket of snow covers the parks and agricultural fields where they feed. The Rideau River is a good spot to look for them, especially at Strathcona and Billings Bridge Parks where hundreds of ducks congregate and receive handouts from humans.

Ring-billed Gull

Ring-billed Gull

In the woods, I found a group of Bohemian Waxwings feeding on what remained of the buckthorn berries. A single American Robin was with them; Hurdman is usually a good spot to find overwintering robins. I also heard a small flock of Common Redpolls flying over.

I returned to Hurdman at lunch yesterday after Ottawa received another foot of snow on Thursday. The Barrow’s Goldeneye and the juvenile Herring Gull were still present, but the Ring-billed Gull and Great Black-backed Gulls had vanished, and the Glaucous Gull declined to put in an appearance. I also found the muskrat in the same spot near the 417 bridge, diving for food at the edge of the ice.

Muskrat in the sun

Muskrat in the sun

I searched the woods for signs of life and found the usual chickadees, woodpeckers, and a couple of cardinals. I saw a set of fox tracks ambling through the deep snow as well as a couple of rodent tracks scurrying across the snow’s surface. This set led straight to the top of a garbage can which was nearly submerged in the snow.

Rodent Tracks in the Snow

Rodent Tracks in the Snow

I found the Bohemian Waxwings on my way back to the bus station. There were at least 40 in the flock, and a couple of individuals perched low enough in the tree for some photos.

Bohemian Waxwing

Bohemian Waxwing

After receiving two storms in the last eight days, it finally looks as though winter has arrived. As long as parts of the Rideau River remain open, such as at Billings Bridge, Hurdman and Strathcona Parks, these places will be worth checking for interesting ducks and other overwintering birds.

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6 thoughts on “Along the Rideau River

  1. Pingback: Where to go birding around Ottawa | Fletcher Wildlife Garden

    • Thanks Madoqua! There’s generally not as much wildlife around in the winter as there is in the other seasons, so outings like this are especially fun!

  2. Pingback: Highlights from 2012 | The Pathless Wood

  3. Pingback: Highlights from 2012 | The Pathless Wood

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