In the Depths of Winter

Brown Creeper

Brown Creeper

It has not been a great winter for birding so far. Although the Harlequin Ducks are still hanging out at Deschenes Rapids and a Varied Thrush has been reported somewhere near Pakenham / Arnprior, there have been no rarities in our area. Redpolls, crossbills and even Bohemian Waxwings are completely absent, and with the freeze-up of our local ponds and rivers (except for the rapids along the Ottawa and Rideau Rivers), most of the gulls and water birds have left. All that remains are our hardy year-round residents and the usual winter residents: American Tree Sparrows, Snow Buntings, Snowy Owls, Northern Shrike and the like.

The story of the winter so far has been the large influx of one of these winter visitors, the Snowy Owl. Large numbers have left the Arctic in search of a safe place to spend the winter; they have been found all across northeastern North America, and Bruce DiLabio estimates at least 150 Snowy Owls in eastern Ontario alone. Although eBird shows several near my house, I wasn’t able to get out to look for any until the holidays. I found one, or maybe two on one of my outings, but because of the deep snow along the shoulders of some these roads I didn’t pull over to scan every distant fence post or brush pile as I would have liked. My views of the first owl were amazing….it was perched on a telephone pole right above the road. I slowed and looked up at him, while he looked down at me; I drove over to the next street to turn around get some pictures out the driver’s side window but he had quickly flown off. A little later I found another owl perched at the top of a tree in the middle of a different field, though whether it was the same one or not I couldn’t tell.

Two separate trips down Trail Road have proved rewarding, even though there were no gulls either time and the people who work at the landfill have not put out any seed for the songbirds this year. On my first trip to the landfill, I spotted a large, dark bird sitting in a tree above some crows. I thought it was one of resident Red-tailed Hawks at first – until I checked with my binoculars and spotted the white head of an adult Bald Eagle.

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

I was stunned. The eagle was sitting in a tree right beside the road; I pulled ahead of him and then got out to take a few pictures. This was the closest I’d ever been to an adult eagle in Ottawa. Eventually I took one step too far and he flew across the road and over the landfill. Every crow in the area seemed to rise up into flight as well.

I saw no songbirds or turkeys while I was there; two Red-tailed Hawks were the only other birds of interest. They were still there when I returned the following day, but all the crows were gone. This was the first time I’d ever been to Trail Road where I couldn’t recall seeing a single crow. A single Northern Shrike perched in almost the same spot where the eagle had been was the only other bird I saw.

I decided to try my luck with woodland birds at Jack Pine Trail. It was sunny when I arrived, but began clouding over as I walked the outer loop. I didn’t see a single Red-breasted Nuthatch, and the Purple Finches Anouk and I had seen by the feeder on December 6th were gone. There were lots of woodpeckers – I counted 6 Downy Woodpeckers and 3 Hairy Woodpeckers altogether. A pair of Northern Cardinals were sitting in the trees above the feeder, while two Blue Jays called from somewhere nearby.

Then I heard the high-pitched call of a Brown Creeper and found him working his way up a tree close by. Although called “creepers”, these guys move fast, zooming up the tree so quickly it’s difficult to get a decent photo of them. They search for insects and larvae beneath pieces of bark, always working their way from the bottom of the tree to the top; when they are finished exploring the branches of one tree, they gently flutter down to the base of another tree and start the whole process again. They don’t seem to do much else; I have never seen one sitting on a branch and preening, or squabbling with another creeper. This fellow, however, was taking his time exploring every crevice and cranny in the tree bark. I managed to get my best photo ever of this species while he sat in the same spot for several seconds:

Brown Creeper

Brown Creeper

A moment later he was spiraling up the tree again, and this photo shows you how I normally see them. You can see how the creeper holds its short legs out to the side of its body, using its long, curved claws to dig into the bark. Like a woodpecker, it props its long, stiff tail against the tree for support. When it moves up the tree, both feet hop forward at the same time, making the bird’s head bob after each hop. Because of its specialized anatomy, the Brown Creeper rarely climbs downward.

Brown Creeper

Brown Creeper

I think Brown Creepers are cute, enigmatic birds, and I enjoyed watching this one for close to ten minutes.

Just past the feeders I found a couple of American Tree Sparrows, along with two more cardinals and another Blue Jay feeding on seed spilled on the ground. I also found a few more tree sparrows at the very back of the trail, but no Red-breasted Nuthatches. This is the best photo I took of one before a couple of skiers came along and scared them all into the brush.

American Tree Sparrow

American Tree Sparrow

It was nice to get outside and enjoy the crisp, winter air after spending so much time inside this winter. Although tomorrow promises to be cold, I can’t wait to get outside and start a brand new year list for 2014.

As the year draws to a close, I would like to wish all of you a very happy, healthy, and nature-filled new year!


14 thoughts on “In the Depths of Winter

  1. That is a beautiful image of the eagle. Really amazing. You lucky duck:)

    I was in North Bay for Christmas and while myself and my husband were packing up the car we saw a monstrous woodpecker land on the side of a wooden power line post. I’m still very new to birding and it almost looked cartoonish it was so big. When I looked it up it was apparently a Pileated Woodpecker. No camera in hand of course hehe. But it was brilliant.

    You must have an amazing eye to get these wonderful images. Do you find it easier in the winter without the foliage or harder to find birds to see in the winter?

    Thanks again for sharing all your wonderful images.

    • Hi Cathy,

      Yes, that sounds like a Pileated Woodpecker you saw….they are the largest woodpecker in Ontario, about the size of a crow. Gorgeous bird, isn’t it?

      Thanks so much for the compliment. It takes practice to develop an eye for finding birds in an otherwise barren landscape, but it’s just a matter of recognizing that a lump in a tree is really a hawk or seeing movement that is opposite to that of the wind as a bird flies off. The more you go out birding, the easier this becomes. I couldn’t immediately see the eagle’s white head because of the snowy branches, so I stopped the car, and looked through my binoculars to ID it (I thought it was a hawk, probably one of the Red-tails that hang around but hoping for a Rough-leg. Turned out to be neither!)

      I find winter the most difficult season to bird because there are so few birds around. At Jack Pine Trail, I’d find a pocket of chickadees and woodpeckers, and then go 10-15 minutes without hearing or seeing anything. I’d rather bird in the warmer months, because even with the foliage there is usually something around, even if you can only hear it. I’ve learned most of the songs of the common birds around Ottawa, so I can ID most songbirds by ear…though of course I would prefer to see them!

      Happy new year!

    • Thanks Jason.Yeah, that Bald Eagle was my best personal find of the winter so far. 🙂

      I’m looking forward to finding some neat things next year; there are lots of Snowies around, so I’d like to get some photos for the blog, and if I’m REALLY lucky I’ll get a picture worth posting of a Northern Shrike or a goshawk. Unless something unexpected shows up, though, I’m afraid I’ll have to wait until spring to find something really good.

      Happy new year!

  2. Gillian

    I’m curious as to what types of feeders you use in your own garden in the winter. I took down the pole system I had for the winter (just got it last spring) and perhaps that was a mistake. I’ve put up a suet feeder and a thistle hanging bag style nyjer on my planter. I haven’t seen much but my neighbour seems to be attracting them with her feeders. She has a couple of tube style feeders out. I’m like a crazy stalker out the bedroom window watching for birds in my neighbors yard hehehe.

    I also put out a swing chair platform feeder but its difficult to get out with the snow to keep it cleared. I just keep safflower in it to deter the squirrels.

    If you were putting out a couple of winter feeders, what do you recommend?


    • Hi Cathy,

      I have (well, had) a gazebo type feeder that hangs from a planter hook attached to my fence. The squirrels have eaten through the plastic cap so now it’s useless. I usually put a mixture of sunflower seeds and shelled peanuts in it – many birds prefer these two foods, and it’s what I take with me on my outings to feed the chickadees. I also have a cylindrical feeder filled with black oil sunflower seeds hanging from a shepherd’s hook in my garden which used to attract the chickadees but hasn’t been touched in a while.

      Please note that I actually get very few birds at my feeders in the winter time. I live in a townhouse in the middle of the suburbs, with a postage-stamp sized yard, and there are no real mature trees in my neighbourhood to attract birds like nuthatches or woodpeckers. I do get chickadees, goldfinches and cardinals once in a while, and Blue Jays and juncos in the fall, but I seem to have more birds in the summer when the Chipping Sparrows and the Mourning Doves stop by almost daily along with the occasional grackle or Song Sparrow.

      If I had a bigger yard, with some sort of forest or green space nearby that attracted lots of different species, I would probably put a pole system up so the squirrels couldn’t get to it and hang up a gazebo feeder and a cylindrical feeder offering sunflower seeds and peanuts, as well as a niger seed feeder, and maybe a suet feeder (though I would prefer to hang that in a tree if I had one!). I don’t mind feeding the squirrels and would put out a cage that holds peanuts still in the shell for them and the Blue Jays.

      Something like this would be my ideal!


  3. WOW…that is an awesome cam view. Thank you so much for sharing the link.

    You must bring good luck birding. Since I posted this morning I’ve actually had a few gold finches to my nyjer feeder. Yes, I will definitely have to get out some sunflower seeds. It might help bring more variety.

    Thanks again.

    • Hi Suzanne,

      It wasn’t as cold that day as it was yesterday (or will be today….brrr!) but yes, it’s been a harsh winter. I can’t wait for it to warm up. At this point -10°C will seem warm.

      Happy new year!

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