Unexpected Year Birds

American Robin

American Robin

Sometimes the best outings occur when you go looking for one particular species but find something entirely different instead. With many of my coworkers still on holidays, things were quiet enough at work that I had enough time to go to Hurdman on my lunch break on Thursday and Billings Bridge on on Friday. With a year list of only 17 species after the first day, I was still missing several ducks, finches, and other common birds. I hoped to rectify this by spending some time along the Rideau River, even though it was still bitterly cold…Ottawa was stuck in a deep freeze that lasted three days, with the daytime temperatures reaching no higher than -23°C. Fortunately there was very little wind, which made the cold tolerable so long as I bundled up in numerous layers before heading out.


To my surprise the feeders had been stocked at Hurdman, attracting chickadees and a male Downy Woodpecker to the suet feeder and a black squirrel at the seed feeder. As I started walking down the feeder trail, I caught a glimpse of a large, dark bird comically running down the path away from me before it rounded a bend and disappeared. I suspected it was a Wild Turkey, for it had a long neck and tiny head; this was confirmed when a second one stepped out onto the path followed it. I followed them and found two turkeys foraging in a clearing just off the main bike path. One appeared to be a female, while the other was definitely a male!

Wild Turkey

Wild Turkey

Of all the birds I hoped to find at Hurdman, Wild Turkey wasn’t one of them. It’s been several years since I saw my last ones here, so I definitely wasn’t expecting to find a pair!

I left the turkeys and headed up to the bike path to check out the river. There was a small patch of open water on either side of the 417 bridge, and at first I couldn’t see any birds on the river because of the mist rising from the water. Then I spotted three Common Goldeneyes. I checked to make sure there were no other species, then walked beneath the bridge to look for the mergansers and mallards.

I didn’t see any Common Mergansers, but I found the male Barrow’s Goldeneye among the large flock of Common Goldeneyes. At first I didn’t see any mallards; they must have been resting beneath the bridge, for when they saw me standing near a large pile of seed in the snow they all swam out from beneath the bridge then flew toward me, landing at my feet! I checked for American Black Ducks but didn’t see any.

On my way back along the feeder trail I found one other new year bird that I wasn’t expecting: Cedar Waxwing. I noticed a pale brownish bird land on a branch deep in the woods and thought it was a female cardinal at first. Then I saw the yellow belly and identified it as a Cedar Waxwing, a great find for my year list! Two more were sitting in the tangle of branches. There are lots of buckthorn berries and wild grapes in the area, which makes it a good spot to find robins and waxwings in the winter, if they are present.

I added two more birds to the list the following day when I went to Billings Bridge. Both Hooded and Common Mergansers had been seen here the day before, along with several gulls. I added American Black Duck to my list almost as soon as I arrived, but couldn’t find any mergansers in the tiny patch of open water east of the Bank Street bridge. Then I spotted a bird with a dark brown head and pale body; when I saw the white stripe extending up its neck I knew I had something better than any merganser, a male Northern Pintail! I watched it swim in the small patch of water with about 100 mallards and two Common Goldeneyes for about fifteen minutes. Just as I was about to leave, it clambered up onto the ice, then flew toward the bank where I was standing! This is the closest I’ve ever been to a male Northern Pintail in breeding plumage; it was a thrilling encounter! This was also the first time I’d found an overwintering Northern Pintail on my own without chasing an Ontbirds report.

Northern Pintail

Northern Pintail

Today I went to Mud Lake to look for a Winter Wren, some robins, juncos, House Finches and Common Mergansers that had been reported there. Once again I missed the mergansers, and the House Finches and Winter Wren were nowhere to be found. However, I heard what I assumed to be two White-throated Sparrows calling from the thickets at the base of the ridge, and found a large flock of at least 15 robins in the buckthorn shrubs at the western end of the ridge.

American Robin

American Robin

Some European Starlings and a pair of Downy Woodpeckers were also present, and I scattered some seed on the snow for the ever-present chickadees and cardinals. Only when I turned around did I find a couple of Dark-eyed Juncos feeding on the seed as well, together with a small bird which turned out to be a White-throated Sparrow. These birds overwinter in Ottawa in small numbers, and are usually found in places like the Fletcher Wildlife Garden where seed and shelter is abundant. I wasn’t expecting to find one at Mud Lake, and seeing him helped make up for the lack of House Finches.

I didn’t check out the river at Britannia Point as there was too much mist rising off the water; it was also still very cold (-17°C), so I didn’t check the western fence line for any other birds. Instead, I stopped in at Sarsaparilla Trail where I knew I could easily add Red-breasted Nuthatch to my year list. All I had to do was walk over to the open area by the outhouse, and hold out a handful of seeds. A gazillion chickadees descended on me, together with one White-breasted Nuthatch and two Red-breasted Nuthatches. I managed to snap this photo of a male Red-breasted Nuthatch before he swooped in for some seeds:

Red-breasted Nuthatch

Red-breasted Nuthatch

The new year is only four days old, and my year list is already up to 29 species. I enjoy starting each new year with a blank page; looking for those first birds of the year gives me a reason to go out, even on the coldest days. Every species is new again, and prevents me from getting bored with the common resident birds.

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2 thoughts on “Unexpected Year Birds

  1. I got impatient for pictures, scrolled past the text and did a jawdrop when I saw the Northern Pintail! Surprised no one else had reported him yet. Maybe he’d been wintering somewhere else, and it froze up in the deep freeze and he moved to Billings Bridge?

    • Hi Suzanne,

      I think that’s exactly what happened, as people have been reporting both Hooded and Common Mergansers at Billings Bridge for a few days now, but not the pintail, and there is only one patch of open water near the bridge. He was probably somewhere a bit further south, since a lot of people bird the open water to the north looking for the Barrow’s Goldeneye.

      Yeah, I did a jawdrop too when I saw him! Thought he was a female merganser at first in the harsh sunlight – hmm, dark head, pale body, where’s the straight line separating the head from the neck? That’s not a merg, that’s a pintail! I was pretty happy I made the jaunt that day in the brutally cold weather, even if I didn’t get the mergs!

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