Winter Gulls

Iceland Gull

Iceland Gull

Even though the winter solstice is still two weeks away, there’s no use in denying it: winter is here. It doesn’t seem fair that we had a late spring this year, and now we’re having an early winter. There are thin, crusty patches of snow on the ground in places, and we’ve had some really cold days lately – so cold, that on Sunday I didn’t want to go out birding.

Astronomical winter begins on December 21st this year, the shortest day of the year. However, when it comes to birding, there’s something to be said for defining the seasons meteorologically. Meteorological seasons occur in three-month blocks, just like astronomical seasons, but they start on the 1st day of March, June, September and December. In this case, winter begins on December 1st and ends on February 28th, the coldest three-month period of the year in the northern hemisphere. This corresponds to the “winter birding season”, when the fewest number of species are typically present in our area; and the number of species keeps dropping throughout this period, until late February when the birding doldrums hit and it seems as though spring migration will never begin.

Fortunately, there is usually a good diversity of gull species present in the winter – more species than we get in the summer. On November 30th I headed over to Andrew Haydon Park to see if I could spot some different species on the frozen ponds. It was my last visit this year where the water was still open, and there wasn’t much to see on the river except for the usual scaup, goldeneyes, Canada Geese and mallards. I found some gulls sitting on the ice again, including a juvenile Great Black-backed Gull. They can be differentiated from juvenile Herring Gulls by the clean white head, massive bill, and distinctly patterned wings. Juvenile Herring Gulls are sort of smudgy brown all over, including the head, and lack the the crisp checkerboard pattern on the wings.

Great Black-backed Gull

Great Black-backed Gull

From there I drove to Mud Lake, curious to see if any interesting birds were skulking in the woods or scrubby area west of the pond. I was also hoping to see some redpolls or Bohemian Waxwings, few of which have deigned to show up so far, and Mud Lake was as good a place as any to look for these winter wanderers. I wasn’t surprised to see that the pond had frozen over; there were several gulls sitting in the middle, including Ring-billed Gulls, Herring Gulls, and Great Black-backed Gulls. The only other bird of note that I saw there was a Song Sparrow in the weedy area by the construction site east of the ridge….likely my last one until late March when they start migrating again.

The first Saturday in December was not too chilly, though it was a bit damp. I started my day with a trip to Shirley’s Bay, only to find that the river had completely frozen over. I drove by Andrew Haydon Park, but the water there was frozen, too. I didn’t see any birds on the iced-over ponds so I decided to head south and drive to Trail Road instead.

There were several gulls around this time, and it didn’t take me long to spot a large juvenile Glaucous Gull among the more common Herrings Gulls. I didn’t see any Ring-billed Gulls – these gulls disappear once the river freezes over, and most have probably headed to the St. Lawrence for the winter.

Glaucous Gull

Glaucous Gull

Mark, a friend from the OFNC, arrived not long after, and spotted a juvenile Iceland Gull within a few minutes. I found the bird he was looking at and was surprised at how dark it was – not much lighter than some of the juvenile Herring Gulls. The wingtips are the same colour as the rest of its wings; a Herring Gull has much darker wingtips.

Herring and Iceland Gulls

Herring and Iceland Gulls

It also has a neatly speckled appearance:

Iceland Gull

Iceland Gull

To my delight, the Iceland Gull wandered into the same field of view as the Glaucous Gull! This gave me the chance to compare both species while watching them, and to capture a few photos. The Glaucous Gull (top left) is a large, heavy bird approaching the Great Black-backed Gull in size – it is larger and thicker in the chest than the nearby Herring Gull, with wings that are relatively short and blunt. The Iceland Gull (bottom right) is smaller, sleeker, and has long, tapered wings that project well beyond the tail, giving the bird an attenuated look. You can click on the below photo to enlarge it.

Herring, Glaucous and Iceland Gulls

Herring, Glaucous and Iceland Gulls

Of course, bill colouration is a dead giveaway – juvenile Glaucous Gulls have a bill that is mainly pink with a black tip, while juvenile Iceland Gulls have a bill that is completely dark. Colouration of the body itself is not a factor, as this varies in individuals of both species – some are darker than others, while others are paler.

Iceland Gull

Iceland Gull

There weren’t too many other species at the landfill – only about 60 Herring Gulls, one or two Great Black-backed Gulls, a Blue Jay, plus the usual crows and starlings. Mark saw a Rough-legged Hawk fly over the landfill well to the north but I couldn’t put my binoculars on it before it disappeared over a heap of trash.

I spent about 45 minutes at the landfill before leaving. I observed a Northern Shrike on Barnsdale Road in its usual spot between Cedarview and Moodie (this at least the third winter I’ve seen one along this stretch) and a Rough-legged Hawk in a tree overlooking the large quarry pond on Moodie. There was a tiny sliver of water open in the middle of the frozen quarry pond, attracting a few mallards and several Canada Geese. More gulls were standing on the ice, including a sprinkling of Great Black-backed Gulls among the smaller Herring Gulls. If there were any other gull species among them, they were too far to discern.

With the Ottawa River and Moodie Drive quarry pond now quickly freezing over, one thing is clear: winter is here. At least there is one thing to be said about winters in Ottawa – when the woods are silent, the marshes are empty, and the rivers and ponds have frozen over, you can usually count on seeing plenty of birds at the local landfill!

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