Mid-Winter Birding

American Robin

American Robin

Groundhog Day has come and gone, and we are still more than a month away from the spring equinox. This is the time of year when birding reaches its lowest ebb; the birds aren’t moving around very much, and migration is still weeks away. In Ottawa, February is the quietest month for birding, but there have been enough interesting reports to send me out each weekend looking for new year birds. I have added only five new birds to my year list so far this month, including a Common Merganser in the channel behind the Ridge at Mud Lake, and the over-wintering Hermit Thrush behind the Parliament buildings. After realizing just how short a walk Parliament Hill is from the building where I work, and how much potential there is for finding migrants there in season, I’ve made it a goal to spend more lunch hours there this spring.

On Saturday I went out to a couple of the Stony Swamp trails. There wasn’t much around at the Beaver Trail, though the chickadees were happy to see me; I tallied only four species there. At Jack Pine Trail I counted nine species, but failed to find the Black-backed Woodpecker seen briefly there earlier in the week. I did find the three usual woodpeckers, most of which were in the area near the OFNC feeder. This Downy Woodpecker found the suet to his liking:

Downy Woodpecker

Downy Woodpecker

You can see how the small bill of the Downy Woodpecker is almost lost in the feathers covering the base of its bill, whereas the Hairy Woodpecker has a longer beak which is more chisel-like compared to the Downy’s. This is the best way for beginners to differentiate these two species; with more experience, the two woodpeckers can be identified by size alone.

Hairy Woodpecker

Hairy Woodpecker

After leaving Jack Pine Trail I drove over to the Trail Road Landfill hoping to get lucky with another Bald Eagle or Northern Shrike. I didn’t see either, although three Red-tailed Hawks had staked out the dump and were constantly in flying back and forth over the mass of garbage. I hadn’t been there long when Jon Ruddy, a fellow member of the OFNC, arrived and began scoping the hawks. I got out of the car to speak with him, and as we were chatting four gulls flew out from the dump over the road. Three were Great Black-backed Gulls, and the third was a Glaucous Gull – another year bird for me! I wasn’t able to get to my camera in time, but both Jon and I agreed it was a bit of a mystery where these gulls were spending their time, and where they disappeared to each time.

The following day I met up with Deb for some more west-end birding. We decided to look for waterfowl along the Ottawa River, stopping at Bate Island first. We found a large number of Common Goldeneyes and three Buffleheads – one male and two females. Although it was snowing and the light was terrible, I managed to get one decent photo of a male and female together:

Bufflehead

Male and Female Bufflehead

We drove over to Mud Lake next, hoping to see more waterfowl in the rapids or in the channel. We parked in the lot at the east end of the ridge and walked toward Britannia Point. Along the way we found a large flock of robins, two Cedar Waxwings, several European Starlings, and a couple of woodpeckers. The first robins we encountered were sitting in the sumac shrubs next to the filtration plant, eating the fruit. A single Cedar Waxwing was among them as well. We found more robins digging in small patches of exposed soil at the base of the spruce trees next to the filtration plant. Several more were sitting in the trees along the water’s edge. Their number seems to have increased since my first visit in January; I estimate at least 30 were present. Many of them were sitting still, so I was able to get some better pictures of them.

American Robin

American Robin

I noticed a couple of robins eating snow, either from tree branches themselves or from the ground as they perched on the lowest branches of the clump of cedars growing near the point.

American Robin

American Robin

A White-breasted Nuthatch flew toward me while I was watching the robins, so I took out some seed and offered it to the birds. The nuthatch was quite aggressive, vocalizing and opening its wings whenever a chickadee landed on my hand at the same time. I am used to seeing this sort of aggression in Red-breasted Nuthatches, but never in White-breasted Nuthatches; they are the shyest of the three species and are often too timid to even land on my hand. A male Downy Woodpecker was also in the area, and came to my hand without any hesitation.

I put some seeds on the snow bank next to the road in order to photograph the birds. Don’t be fooled by the green background; although it looks nice and spring-like, the green is from a clump of cedars in the background.

Black-capped Chickadee

Black-capped Chickadee

White-breasted Nuthatch

White-breasted Nuthatch

Deb and I checked the open water at Britannia Point and found only a couple of goldeneyes, so we followed the path back to the ridge. We found two robins at the edge of the ice, sipping water from the river.

American Robins drinking

American Robins drinking

Another one flew down, and I snapped this picture just as he flew a couple of feet along the riverbank. I hadn’t known that the red of the robin’s breast extended to the underside of its wings, too.

American Robin along the river

American Robin along the river

A dozen starlings were also present in this area, eating what remained of the Buckthorn berries and digging at the leaves of a squirrel drey. I hardly have any photos of this species, so I attempted to take some images. Despite being very common and quite numerous, they don’t often allow a close approach. This is the best image that I got – although there are a couple of twigs in front of the bird’s face, I love the glossy green hue of this bird, as well as the extensive spotting. Like Snow Buntings, these birds do not molt into a spring plumage; instead, they lose the white spots of their winter plumage when the tips of their feathers become worn, and thus appear black during the breeding season. A better sign that spring is on its way is the colour of the bill. Black during the winter, their bills become yellow during the breeding season. You can see how this process is already underway in this bird:

European Starling

European Starling

Deb and I went up to the ridge after that. There weren’t many songbirds present, so we focused our attention on the ducks in the channel. We saw a large flock of mallards hanging around the edge of the ice, as well as the usual Common Goldeneyes diving and drifting downstream. Then we spotted a different duck in the channel, dark with a pale face and a dark patch on her face: the female Long-tailed Duck! Although we knew one had been seen in the Deschenes Rapids from Britannia, we hadn’t expected to see her right in the channel. We watched as she slowly swam downstream, diving occasionally. Then we lost her behind some trees and couldn’t relocate her. We decided to wait to see if she would fly back upstream; when she didn’t, we walked down to the area behind the ridge and checked the length of the channel. She was gone, and we figure she must have swam to the end of the channel, then turned around and flew back upstream on the other side of the island where we couldn’t see her.

We left Mud Lake after that and drove around the west end, looking for raptors and other open-area birds. We finished the day with two Snowy Owls and four Horned Larks, two additional overwintering species.

Although the past few weeks have been quiet, with hardly any changes in the birding landscape, there have been enough species around to keep the winter from becoming dull. Seeing so many robins in one spot, as well as the overwintering Long-tailed Duck and Buffleheads – ducks which usually spend the winter further south – and the Horned Larks and Snowy Owls made it a great mid-winter’s outing.

Advertisements

8 thoughts on “Mid-Winter Birding

    • Thanks Paul. Mud Lake is possibly THE best spot in Ottawa for birding, especially during migration. About 250 bird species have been seen in this conservation area, or approximately 75% of all species recorded in the OFNC study area. I have gotten so many lifers there and hope to get a few more!

    • Thanks Sue. I am happy with the robin shots. The last two times I’ve tried to photograph them they have been very skittish and wouldn’t stay in one spot for very long. They were much more accommodating this time. And for some reason I find the woodpeckers are also pretty cooperative….at least on these trails where they are used to people!

  1. I’ve just about given up on birding this winter, so it’s nice to do some birding-by-proxy by reading your blog 🙂 Love that shot of the two drinking robins looking like mirror images of each other. I seldom see songbirds brave enough to drink from fast-flowing water. But I guess they take what they can get in a winter like this.

    • Hi Suzanne,

      Yes, it’s been tempting to give up on birding this winter, hasn’t it? Not only have there been fewer birds around than usual, but the weather has been awful. I am definitely ready for spring!

      I was surprised to see the robins drinking from the river, too. Usually there’s some open water on the pond right at the entrance to Cassels Street where I’ve seen robins drinking (and even catching little fish), but not this year. Maybe a little later once the ice starts to thaw. I was scared they would be swept away and I would have to rescue them!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s