The first day of 2014 dawned bright and sunny, with a faint pink and peach hue to the pale blue morning sky. It was cold, too – bitterly cold. I left the house at 8:00 am with the temperature fluctuating between -24°C and -21°C, and although I was out until close to noon, it never really got any warmer.
I saw no birds in my yard or on my street before I left, so I wasn’t surprised that my first bird of the year was an American Crow sitting on a tree on Stonehaven Drive. My second bird of the year was a Blue Jay sitting in the conservation area across from the gas station on Old Richmond Road (the same gas station where I heard the lovely song of a Wood Thrush issuing from the same woods back in July). I was filling up my car when I spotted him, and as soon as I focused my binoculars on him he flew off.
My third new bird of 2014 was a little bit longer in coming. I drove to several locations where Snowy Owls had been seen recently, seeing nothing but crows and Blue Jays along the way. After checking out several spots – including the one where I had seen the Snowy Owl from the bus yesterday morning – I finally found one sitting on the ground amongst some vegetation. He wasn’t close – this photo was taken using the full extent of my camera’s 30x zoom – but it will suffice as my first photo of the Snowy Owl invasion this winter.
I didn’t see any hawks or Snow Buntings in my travels, so my next stop was the Trail Road Landfill. I was hoping to find either the Bald Eagle or the Northern Shrike from last weekend, but both were absent. Instead, I found a Red-tailed Hawk being ignominiously escorted from the landfill by a Common Raven. The hawk was screaming and trying to evade the larger bird as they flew over the road; the Common Raven was squawking and dive-bombing the hawk. It’s not often that I hear the call of a Red-tailed Hawk, and this one sounded seriously pissed off.
A Great Black-backed Gull flew over the road, and in the dump itself I spotted two more hawks perching in the trash. One seemed to have the dark vest of a Rough-legged Hawk, but it disappeared when I went to get my camera. The other had its back to me but looked like another Red-tailed Hawk. The only other species I encountered here were the hundreds of crows and starlings that usually inhabit the dump.
I left the landfill, figuring it was finally time to brave the cold and try Jack Pine Trail for some woodland birds. A female Northern Cardinal greeted me at the trail entrance, and at the feeders a single Mourning Dove, three Downy Woodpeckers, three Hairy Woodpeckers and an assortment of chickadees were present. I found three more cardinals and a couple of Blue Jays further along the trail, but the American Tree Sparrows were absent from their usual spot. If I wanted to get them for my brand new year list, I would have to walk all the way to the back of the trail. Although my fingertips and toes were starting to feel painfully cold, I decided it was worth the walk.
This was a good decision, as I encountered a couple of White-breasted Nuthatches and a beautiful Pileated Woodpecker along the way.
My camera seemed to have difficulty focusing on the birds; this was best shot I got. I had hoped to take a photo of each species I saw for my year list, but my camera didn’t seem to be functioning well in the cold. This was the first time I’d taken it out in -20°C weather, and changing the settings didn’t seem to solve anything….it did seem to do better once I returned to the warmth of the car.
I also found a Hairy Woodpecker working on a tree stump close by and had better luck photographing him, perhaps because he was closer. Clearly this is a favoured stump among the woodpeckers.
At the back of the trail I found two American Tree Sparrows and at least 30 chickadees. I gave them the last of my food, and watched as a small male Downy Woodpecker came in to take the seeds as well. Altogether I saw six Downy and six Hairy Woodpeckers on my walk, many of which were quite vocal. It’s not often I get good photos of the three winter woodpeckers on the same day!
I decided to return to Trail Road to look for birds of prey and found one Red-tailed Hawk sitting on the mound of trash. I caught a glimpse of a white-winged gull fly by my window as soon as I arrived; I got out of the car in time to see it being chased back toward the landfill by a crow. I first saw it from below as it flew toward the road, and its underside appeared white. When it turned I was surprised to the pale gray mantle of an adult bird; I had been expecting an all-white juvenile. I’m not sure if it was an Iceland or a Glaucous Gull, but it seemed to me to have white wingtips, pointing towards Glaucous Gull. I waited for 15 minutes but the bird never returned. It and the Great Black-backed Gull I saw earlier were the only two gulls I saw there.
By that time I was looking forward to warming up at home and started to drive home. However, some small birds flying up from the shoulder of Old Richmond Road made me pull over. They landed close enough to ID them as Horned Larks; and then they flew even closer, landing on a snowbank next to the road! I tried taking several pictures, but had issues focusing on the birds once again. Then a car came along and scared them all into flight while I was photographing them. They landed behind a big pile of hay on Steeplehill Crescent, so I drove around the corner and parked at the side of the road where I had excellent views of the three Horned Larks feeding on scattered grains.
By remaining in the car I was able to get some better photos of them, even though I was looking into the sun. Although the Snowy Owl was probably the best bird of the day, these were my favourites. It’s not often that I am able to watch these birds up close; normally they fly off to the middle of the field when my car approaches. However, they seemed intent on feeding on whatever grains were scattered around the hay pile, so I’m guessing they felt safe as long as I stayed in the car. I’m hoping, too, that they will continue to be attracted to this food source during the course of the winter.
It was a great start to the year, though a cold one; I tallied 17 species altogether (18 if you count the unidentified white-winged gull) and had some excellent birds, such as the Snowy Owl, the two gulls, the Horned Larks, and the Pileated Woodpecker. Hopefully the rest of 2014 will be just as good!