Winter Wildlife at Jack Pine Trail

Black-backed Woodpecker

Black-backed Woodpecker

Jack Pine Trail in Stony Swamp is one of my favourite trails. I got a lifer there the first time I ever visited the trail back in June 2006 – a Virginia Rail – and many more since. Because of its mix of habitats, it is a good spot to view wildlife all year round; the trails cross several marshes, coniferous and deciduous forest, and even an open alvar-like area that hosts Field Sparrows and White-throated Sparrows in the summer. In the winter, the OFNC maintains a large bird feeder along the northern part of the trail, though this doesn’t prevent chickadees from approaching people for handouts. This is one of the best places in Ottawa to feed chickadees and nuthatches right from your hand.

With virtually no winter finches or Bohemian Waxwings present in eastern Ontario this winter, I’ve only observed a handful of species at Jack Pine Trail this winter. I’ve seen Mourning Doves, Downy Woodpeckers, Hairy Woodpeckers, Pileated Woodpeckers, Blue Jays, American Crows, Common Ravens, Black-capped Chickadees, Red-breasted Nuthatches, White-breasted Nuthatches, American Tree Sparrows and Northern Cardinals on almost all of my visits so far this year; the Northern Goshawk and Sharp-shinned Hawks were one-time occurrences for me. I didn’t think any new birds would show up until the spring, but when a Black-backed Woodpecker was reported there in early February I decided to spend some time looking for it. I missed it last weekend, but when I went there on Saturday I found not one, but two males in the trees behind the small bench near the OFNC feeder. This is the exact same spot I saw one last winter.

Black-backed Woodpecker

Black-backed Woodpecker

As usual, it was the sound of tapping that drew me to them. There were a number of Hairy Woodpeckers and Downy Woodpeckers in the same area, but I got lucky with the first woodpecker I managed to track down. It was a male, as evidenced by the bright patch of colour present on his crown. Normally males have a yellow crown, but this one was reddish-orange in colour.

Not long after I found the first Black-backed Woodpecker, a second one flew in. This one had the typical bright yellow crown.

Black-backed Woodpecker

Black-backed Woodpecker

They spent about 20 minutes pecking away at the trees in the area. Neither one stayed in one spot for very long; while the bird with the bird with the reddish-orange crown spent more time at the top of the trees, the one with the yellow crown landed on trees right about shoulder height multiple times. I got some fantastic views of this bird when he landed on a tree trunk right in front of me not once but twice.

Black-backed Woodpecker

Black-backed Woodpecker

At one point they both ended up on the same tree. One of them vocalized and spread its wings as though displeased. As most of my Black-backed Woodpecker sightings have been of single birds, I found it fascinating to watch them interacting with one another. The only other time I’ve seen two together was back in September 2006 when a pair showed up briefly at Sarsaparilla Trail. A male and a female were working on one of the conifers there together, one immediately below the other on the same tree trunk. These were my lifer Black-backed Woodpeckers, and as I had only been birding a few months at the time I had no idea how uncommon these birds were in Ottawa. It took me six years to see another one, a female that Deb and I found at the Spruce Bog Trail in Algonquin Park.

Eventually a crowd formed around the woodpeckers, so I decided to walk the outer loop and see if anything else exciting was around. Only the usual birds were present, although a couple of red squirrels caught my attention when they scampered right up to me looking for food.

American Red Squirrel

American Red Squirrel

The next day I returned to Jack Pine Trail early in the morning to see if I could beat the crowd. The sun hadn’t been up very long, and the trees cast long shadows across the trail as I made my way to the feeder area. There were few birds in the clearing; four crows kept watch from various perches while two deer fed on the remains of some vegetables on the ground behind the bench. The crows flew off when I entered the clearing, but the deer remained close by while I put some seeds on the bench for the birds and checked the area for the Black-backed Woodpeckers.

There were two Hairy Woodpeckers on the suet feeders, but the only tapping I heard in the woods was that of a Pileated Woodpecker, a female quite close to the ground. I waited more than ten minutes but the Black-backed Woodpeckers never showed up. In the meantime a third deer had appeared and began lapping up the seeds I left on the bench.

I walked down the trail and caught a brief glimpse of a Snowshoe Hare bounding off into the thickets. When I stopped to investigate the tapping of two more woodpeckers (both Downies), at least a dozen chickadees flew in to see if I had brought them any food. I fed them for a while, then scattered more seed on the ground. When I had gone thirty feet down the trail I stopped to look back – and saw the Snowshoe Hare feeding on the seed!

Snowshoe Hare

Snowshoe Hare

It was half-hidden behind a clump of snow so I started walking slowly to the edge of the path to get some better shots. The hare wasn’t the only one interested in the seeds – several chickadees and a female cardinal also flew in to check them out.

Snowshoe Hare with Northern Cardinal

Snowshoe Hare with Northern Cardinal

I was just thinking about trying to get a little closer when I saw a deer coming down the trail behind it. It, too, stopped and began eating the seeds I’d put out for the chickadees.

White-tailed Deer and Snowshoe Hare

White-tailed Deer and Snowshoe Hare

I used my camera’s zoom to get this shot when they began eating together. It was such a cute scene that a friend of mine suggested they might be Bambi and Thumper! Eventually something scared the Snowshoe Hare; it darted down the path toward me before zigzagging off into the frozen marsh.

White-tailed Deer and Snowshoe Hare

White-tailed Deer and Snowshoe Hare

I started walking away after that, and when I turned around I noticed the doe was following me. I tossed out some more seeds, which she ate, and then she continued walking toward me. I noticed four more deer in the woods ahead of me; I moved off the trail, and the doe walked right by me and joined the other deer.

There wasn’t much else to see along the trail, so I walked back to the feeder area. The Black-backed Woodpeckers still hadn’t put in an appearance so I left. I decided to try to find the Gray Partridges on Moodie Drive, and ran into Aaron, a fellow birder, at the site where they had been most frequently seen. He stopped his car opposite mine and told me he hadn’t seen them either. However, he did find the Lapland Longspur in the North Gower area; it was hanging out with a flock of about 20 Horned Larks. I thanked and him and drove south on Fourth Line Road to the area on Lockhead Road where he had seen them. At first I didn’t see any birds on the dirt road; then, at the eastern end of the road I found a dozen Snow Buntings and a single Blue Jay eating what looked like spilled corn at the side of the road. I watched them for a while, then turned around to head back toward Fourth Line Road. This time I noticed a large flock of birds near the snowmobile crossing. Most of them were Horned Larks; it took me a while, but I finally found the Lapland Longspur among them! I tried taking a few photos, but wasn’t able to get any of the longspur. This was my 45th year bird.

Horned Larks

Horned Larks eating grit on the road

Jack Pine Trail can be interesting all year round, though my favourite time to visit is in the late spring and early summer when the Virginia Rails, Ovenbirds, Common Yellowthroats, Wood Thrushes, sparrows, and Eastern Wood-pewees have returned and are singing on territory. This weekend’s sightings of the Snowshoe Hare and Black-backed Woodpeckers were a wonderful change from the previously quiet outings there, proving that wildlife abounds even during the slow winter season.

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