The End of Winter



February has ended, and so has the winter birding season. Although the weather is by no means spring-like just yet (we just received another 30 cm of snow last week!), it is time to put the 2012-13 winter list away and look forward to the first spring migrants returning. Already the cardinals, chickadees, and House Finches are singing their spring songs, and just last week I heard the first Mourning Dove calling in the neighbourhood. This is especially significant as I haven’t seen or heard any doves in the neighbourhood at all this past winter.

Deb and I have been going out birding nearly every weekend. At the beginning of February we took a drive out to the east end where we found a flock of Snow Buntings on Giroux Road together with a single Horned Lark – a new bird for my winter list. The Snow Buntings were the first ones I’d seen in the Ottawa area – we had some at Amherst Island in January – and when they landed on top of a telephone wire I rolled the window down and took a few pictures.

Snow Bunting

Snow Buntings are beautiful black, white and brown birds that breed in the high Arctic and winter in open agricultural fields and along shores of lakes and oceans. When large flocks are seen in flight, they resemble a cloud of whirling snowflakes.

Snow Buntings

We later found the Barrow’s Goldeneye and a large flock of Bohemian Waxwings at Hurdman, as well as this crow drinking from the water’s edge.

American Crow

American Crow

The following weekend was sunny but cold, and we started our outing with a late afternoon walk at Marlborough Forest. I don’t typically visit Roger’s Pond in the winter, and was hoping to see some interesting wildlife in the forest. Although we saw plenty of tracks in the snow (mostly deer, squirrel and Snowshoe Hare), we saw no mammals and only two bird species – chickadees and Pileated Woodpecker.

Roger’s Pond

In the woods, Deb found this skull sitting on a stump. It looked big, but unfortunately it was incomplete – it was missing the upper teeth and the mandible which would have helped me narrow down which family it belonged to (Deer? Coyote? Another predator?). This is not the same skull that Pat Blake found two summers ago in the same area.

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Unknown Skull

Another photo from a different view:

Unknown Skull

We were surprised at how quiet the woods were. There were no squirrels chattering in the trees at us, no Brown Creepers or nuthatches ambling along the tree trunks, and no woodpeckers other than a Pileated Woodpecker tapping away. It will be nice to return there in June when the birds have all returned.

Snow-covered Shelter

After leaving Marlborough Forest we spent some time driving around the back roads in the area and came across not one, but two Great Gray Owls! It was dusk by then, and both owls were sitting in trees well back from the road. I didn’t bother to take any photos since it was almost fully dark. It was magnificent to see these owl hunting on their own, free from human interference; we saw both fly down to the ground from time to time and return to their perch, although I couldn’t tell whether they had caught anything.

Last weekend we spent some time in the west end closer to home. We started off by visiting the Northern Hawk Owl in Stony Swamp, but didn’t stay long as about half a dozen photographers were attempting to bait him with live mice. The owl looked down at them, interested, but seemed content to remain at the top of the tree in which it was perching – despite a couple of photographers circling around behind him.

From there we went to Mud Lake. We had seen two Cedar Waxwings there two weeks earlier, but found no waxwings on this outing. A single Canada Goose flying with a large flock of mallards was a year bird for both of us, and when a Sharp-shinned Hawk flew in and landed in a tree next to one of the feeders on Cassels Street, it was both a year bird and a winter bird for the both of us. We took a walk through the woods, but the only bird of interest was this male Downy Woodpecker. He flew in and landed on a tree branch right above my head, so I brought out some seeds and held out my hand. I was surprised when he landed on it and spent a moment analyzing the offerings! He took a peanut and flew to this tree trunk where he began working away on it. He returned once more to take another peanut, and then flew off into the woods after that.

Downy Woodpecker

Later we found a Hoary Redpoll at the Hilda Road feeders and the overwintering Green-winged Teal on March Valley Road. We also had a fascinating encounter with this porcupine gnawing on a tree branch right at eye level along Carling Avenue. This is the second time we’d see these two porcupines in the area, and from the trampled snow it looked as though we weren’t the only ones who’d stopped by to photograph them. We made sure to stay well back from him, and not to stand under the porcupine in the tree above us.

Porcupine Gnawing Away

Porcupine Gnawing Away

Altogether I saw 64 species over the winter period, adding 47 species in December, 10 species in January (most of them from our trip to Amherst Island) and only 7 species in February. I didn’t spent a lot of time chasing birds and missed the Northern Flicker and White-throated Sparrow at the Fletcher Wildlife Garden, the Gray Partridges, and a couple of Boreal Owls heard through the Rare Bird Alert. An early freeze-up meant that most of the ducks and Great Blue Herons left early, and despite a few attempts, I didn’t see any of the white-winged gulls along the Rideau River (I did see two flying over my house on January 27th but wasn’t able to get a good enough look at them to determine the species). It’s been fun, especially with all the winter finches, the Black-backed Woodpecker, and the northern owls, but I’m beginning to long for the sounds of the first Red-winged Blackbirds, Song Sparrows and Killdeer of the spring.

7 thoughts on “The End of Winter

  1. Sounds like your winterlisting went about like mine! (Except that I only winterlist for Ottawa, so I don’t have any of the Amherst Island birds.) I too am eagerly awaiting spring migration. I’ve seen Ring-Billed Gulls returning to their usual spots, but no Canada Geese or Red-Winged Blackbirds as yet. I’ve had good luck lately with finding Snow Buntings along Akins Rd.–early migrants I’m guessing, since I searched that area throughout winter and only as of February 26th did I finally start seeing them.

    • Hi Suzanne,

      Yes, I got my first Canada Geese, Ring-billed Gulls and Red-winged Blackbirds this morning while out and about. Saw one flock of geese flying over Trail Road (where the red-wings were) and another flew over my house when I got home. Gulls were also flying over the dump.

      I haven’t seen any Snow Buntings or Horned Larks in the Akins/Rushmore area until a few weeks ago, too, so they didn’t overwinter here. I had both on Rushmore this morning, and it was great to hear the larks singing.


  2. Gillian, it sounds like Spring has sprung your way. We are still in the depths of winter here in northern upper Michigan with another 12 inch snowstorm yesterday. My daughter decided she might try birding this year. (She lives in NYC now.) I think she’s spotted maybe 15 species thus far. I should pass on your blog link to her.

    • Thanks Kathy! We might get another snowstorm before winter’s finished, but in the meantime the birds are returning. We still have a lot of snow, and with temperatures dipping below zero (Celsius) again this week it will take a while for it to melt.

      I hope your daughter enjoys birding! I’ve never been to NYC, but I’ve heard the birding in Central Park and Jamaica Bay can be fabulous. There are a couple of other blogs your daughter might be interested in, both from NYC:

      I wish her all the best in her new hobby!

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