Winter Lingers On (and on and on…)

Snowy OwlI was really hoping to be blogging about spring by now: about open rivers and flooded fields, about groundhogs emerging from hibernation, about waterfowl and blackbirds and Killdeer and phoebes and warm sunny days. Although we are now over a week past the spring equinox, few signs of spring have appeared in the Ottawa region so far.

Winter has been slow to relinquish its grip this year. Normally we get a few days in mid-March where the temperatures rise to +8 or 10°C, bringing Red-winged Blackbirds, Common Grackles, Turkey Vultures, Song Sparrows and other early migrants. Sometimes we even see a few overwintering butterflies emerge. That didn’t happen this year. Instead it has remained very cold, with morning temperatures around -15°C or colder, and daytime highs rarely climbing above the freezing mark. We also haven’t had very many days with southerly winds to bring migrating birds north. Although a few migrants have begun to trickle in, only the Ring-billed Gulls seem to be back in good numbers. While I finally saw my first Canada Geese (4) in the half-frozen ponds on Eagleson Road on Monday, I still haven’t seen my first Red-winged Blackbird. Fortunately, the daytime temperatures are finally supposed to rise above 0°C now, so hopefully migration will begin in earnest soon.

As the last two weekends have felt more like mid-January than mid-March, I haven’t been spending very much time outdoors. Deb and I spent an hour at Mud Lake on March 16th before calling it quits due to the bone-chilling wind and a lingering sinus cold that made being outdoors painful. We didn’t go out on March 23rd as we had just received another 10 cm of snow the day before and it was another bitterly cold day.

My last real outing was on March 9th when Deb and I met up to look for some signs of spring. Though we failed to find any Red-winged Blackbirds or other migrants, we did come across a male Purple Finch singing in the woods. I only managed to catch a quick glimpse of him before he disappeared, but the brief view of the raspberry-coloured bird and his distinctive song were enough to add him to my year list as bird no. 46 on my year list – the first bird I’ve added to my year list since February 16, 2014.

We had better luck with Snowy Owls, finding three in our travels. One was sitting on a snow bank right at the edge of the road, although we didn’t see it until it flew off right in front of us. We weren’t expecting to find one so close to the road, and it blended in so well with its surroundings that it was virtually invisible. It flew off to a telephone pole in the distance.

We found the second owl when we stopped to watch a pair of Horned Larks on another road close by. A couple of cars had also stopped, and we quickly realized they weren’t watching the larks but a Snowy Owl tucked against the fence.

Snowy Owl

The third owl was a stunning bird with no barring on the chest and minimal barring on the back. All of the Snowy Owls I’ve seen so far this winter have been dark, heavily barred birds that appear gray from a distance, so seeing that one that lived up to its “snowy” name was a treat.

Snowy Owl

While it is tempting to label this as a male based on its pristine white plumage, an article written by the Vice President of the Holiday Beach Migration Observatory cautions that trying to age and sex Snowy Owls in the field is not a simple matter, despite conventional wisdom which says males are whiter than females, and that both sexes get lighter with age. Three different researchers who have been studying and banding these birds for a combined total of more than 55 years, including on the owls’ breeding grounds, have seen enough exceptions to discount this conventional wisdom as a sure-fire method of aging and sexing birds in the field. After examining hundreds of Snowy Owls, these researchers have found that while some birds do get lighter with age, some get darker, and others do not change colour at all. Birth order, too, has an effect on colouration; the birds that hatch first are always lighter than those that hatch last, regardless of sex. As such, females that hatch first can be lighter than males that hatch last. For example, an 18-year-old Snowy Owl at a U.S. nature center is as dark today as it was on the day that it hatched; many “experts” labelled it as a hatch year bird. Further, more than one pure white owl in Russia turned out to be female when examined in the hand.

Snowy Owl

As such, not all very white birds are adult males, not all darker ones are female, and not all very dark ones are hatch year birds. Snowy Owls need to be examined in the hand in order to accurately determine age and sex. This is done by taking measurements and examining plumage patterns and molt. So while there is a good chance this bird is an older male, this is by no means certain; it could very well be a female!

Snowy Owl

That was the best Snowy Owl day I’ve had so far this winter, as all three were close enough to the road to get some photos.

Since then, I’ve managed to add a few other birds to my year list: a Peregrine Falcon downtown on March 11th and 12th, the neighbourhood Merlin on March 14th, a Herring Gull at the Trail Road landfill on March 15th, and – most surprising to me – three Ruffed Grouse perching in a small shrub along Old Richmond Road in Stony Swamp on March 25th. I saw the three round balls of feathers looking like oversized Christmas ornaments in a tree from the bus window and instantly knew what they were; if I had a bus list, they would be the newest addition! Some other interesting birds have been a Northern Shrike seen along the transitway near Lincoln Fields (another one for my bus list), another shrike near the Eagleson ponds on March 25th, and the return of the neighbourhood robins and Mourning Doves. Interestingly, our neighbourhood has hosted at least two male Dark-eyed Juncos this winter; one or both of them have been showing up regularly beneath my feeder since the end of February. I’ve never had any juncos overwinter in my yard before, so it’s been great to see them surviving the long, cold, snowy winter.

Still, I’m longing to see some spring migrants…with temperatures finally on the rise, perhaps this will be the weekend that I find some!

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14 thoughts on “Winter Lingers On (and on and on…)

  1. Great post! Wonderful pics of the Snowy Owls. Down here in London, Ontario we have had Red-winged Blackbirds, Grackles, Song Sparrows, and Killdeer show up this past week. Hopefully the warm weather and south winds will push some up your way.

    • Thanks Paul! People have been reporting all those birds (except the Killdeer) in Ottawa for the past few days, but they must be back in very small numbers as I’ve been checking the ponds by my house for blackbirds and migrants all week, as well as the habitat along my bus route every day (an hour trip to downtown Ottawa through prime Red-wing Blackbird territory), with no results. I finally saw some new migrants today, though, so I’m happy! (Two of them were seen from the yard, too!)

  2. Very interesting about the Snowy Owl plumages, Gillian. Never again will I automatically assume that a “pure white” one is an adult male!…(BTW – both the owl & its perch look like the ones I saw back on March 7th) 🙂

    • Hi Chris, Yes, I am pretty sure that’s the same one you posted on Facebook, too (mine was photographed two days later)! I thought the article about the plumages was very interesting, as well. Not that it matters to me if it’s male or female (my eBird reporting usually isn’t THAT specific), I’m always just happy to see the birds (and ID them properly)!

    • Thanks Suzanne! This is the first time in a long time that I’ve seen one that white up close. Actually, I haven’t seen many Snowy Owls up close this winter, which is why I haven’t posted very many pictures of them. I was very glad to find these ones before they all fly north in the spring.

  3. I’m jealous of your great Snowy Owl photos. I tried several times to photograph them, but never managed to be in the right place at the right time. They stuck around down here well into March. Some were apparently being lured into staying longer by kindly folks who fed them mice.

    • Hi Sue, fortunately there are enough Snowy Owls around that I can usually find one or two when I specifically go looking for them. They aren’t usually close enough to photograph; I’ve seen numerous owls this winter, but have only been able to photograph a few – which is fine by me, as I don’t need numerous pictures of these birds. For me, I think it takes about 80% patience and 20% luck to get a great shot worth sharing.

      As for the people feeding them mice, most organizations that work with or rehabilitate owls agree that it’s better NOT to feed them. Project Snowstorm has a page specifically devoted to the subject.

    • I hope, so Pat, but it’s snowing once again. The huge, 5-foot snowbanks next to our driveway were finally beginning to melt….as April is supposed to be colder than normal, I am beginning to think they’ll still be there in May!

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