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.
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:
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.
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.
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!