The Wildlife of Stony Swamp

Red Squirrel - Jack Pine Trail

Red Squirrel – Jack Pine Trail

I’ve been spending a lot of time in Stony Swamp over the holidays. It is a huge conservation area in western Ottawa, with several trails only a short drive from my house. Its location is the chief reason why I spend so much time there, but another reason is the abundance of wildlife. Some places I’ve visited in wintertime are absolutely desolate – for example, on a visit to the Cedar Grove Nature Trail in February 2013 I recorded only two bird species (Black-capped Chickadee and Pileated Woodpecker) and zero mammals, despite a variety of tracks visible in the snow. At Stony Swamp, the wildlife is used to being fed right along the trails and, accordingly, this is where many species gather, rather than dispersing deeper into the woods.

Boxing Day was the first day I was able to get out. I started the morning with a walk at Old Quarry Trail, a large network of trails that connects with the Rideau Trail system. I noticed a small porcupine in a tree about ten minutes into my walk – this trail always seems to have a few around. There were some good birds around, including the overwintering Song Sparrow at the boardwalk, an American Robin feeding on some berries further along (I hope both of them stick around until January!) and best of all, a female Black-backed Woodpecker deep in the trail system! It was very high up a tree, so I decided to wait to see if she would come down closer before taking any pictures. Instead of coming lower, however, she flew off deeper into the woods on the other side of the trail and I lost her.

From there I went to Sarsaparilla Trail where I found another small porcupine rather low in a tree.

Porcupine - Sarsaparilla Trail

Porcupine – Sarsaparilla Trail

It scrambled backward down the tree…

Porcupine - Sarsaparilla Trail

Porcupine – Sarsaparilla Trail

…then walked across the ground to a larger one, which it began to climb. Even keeping my distance I was able to get some of my best-ever photographs of this species. This photo can be enlarged by clicking on it:

Porcupine - Sarsaparilla Trail

Porcupine – Sarsaparilla Trail

Porcupines are solitary animals for most of the year. In the winter they may be found in groups as they share a winter den or food source. Up to a hundred have been counted in a single winter den consisting of large rock piles. Even in these situations they are not social creatures, but often tolerate or ignore each other completely.

It is a myth that porcupines can throw their quills. While the quills may become detached when a porcupine lashes its tail during a confrontation, a person or animal needs to comes in close contact with the porcupine in order for the quills to become embedded in the attacker’s skin. Most porcupines would rather retreat or climb a tree than engage in confrontation, so it’s best to always keep your distance when you encounter one and leave them an escape route.

Porcupine - Sarsaparilla Trail

Porcupine – Sarsaparilla Trail. Click to embiggen!

On December 28th I participated in an informal woodpecker survey along with several members of the OFNC. Black-backed Woodpeckers had been seen on a couple of Stony Swamp trails over the past month, so we split into four groups (including one surveying the east end) to see how many we could find. We were also looking for American Three-toed Woodpeckers, another northern species found occasionally in Ottawa. One has been seen reliably in Gatineau for the past month, and we were hoping to find one on the Ottawa side. My group was responsible for Lime Kiln and Jack Pine Trails, though because of the wind we only tallied a couple of Downy Woodpeckers and one Pileated Woodpecker at Jack Pine Trail – there were none whatsoever at Lime Kiln Trail. A flock of robins at the back of Jack Pine Trail was a treat to see, and by the time we returned to the feeders to look for more woodpeckers, and were told we had missed a Short-tailed Weasel by only a few minutes. That would have been an awesome sighting!

Seeing photos of the weasel and a winter-white Snowshoe Hare on the OFNC’s Facebook page were the main reasons why I went back to Jack Pine Trail first thing the next morning. It was a weekday, and there was only one other car in the parking lot when I arrived. Perhaps this is why I saw so much. When I got past the feeders the chickadees flew in, looking for food. I hand-fed them for a while, then threw some down on the ground when I noticed a cardinal lurking in the thickets. The cardinal and at least four Blue Jays swooped in to pick up the seed.

A little further along I heard something walking in the leaf litter and was surprised to see this buck – it is the first time I’ve seen a deer at Jack Pine Trail in a long time.

White-tailed Deer - Jack Pine Trail

White-tailed Deer – Jack Pine Trail

I walked to the very end of the trail hoping to see the robins again but they were gone. When I returned to the feeders I found a couple of people photographing something off-trail; when I looked to see what they were aiming their cameras at I noticed a very white weasel clinging to a tree trunk!

Short-tailed Weasel - Jack Pine Trail

Short-tailed Weasel – Jack Pine Trail

The Short-tailed Weasel appeared to be digging ferociously at something inside a small cavity, possibly some sort of insect colony burrowing inside the wood. I had never seen this behaviour before and thought it fascinating. Although it was too far to see with my naked eye, when I reviewed my photos it looked as though the weasel had twisted itself around inside the hole…I had never realized they were such contortionists!

Short-tailed Weasel - Jack Pine Trail

Short-tailed Weasel – Jack Pine Trail

With no snow cover left, the leaf litter crunched beneath our feet as we slowly crept closer. The weasel heard, and looked around from time to time before returning to its activity. Eventually it scampered down the tree trunk and ran toward a fallen log. It changed its mind, ran up inside another tree cavity, stayed there for a moment, then darted out and disappeared into the area behind the feeders.

Short-tailed Weasel - Jack Pine Trail

Short-tailed Weasel – Jack Pine Trail

It was an amazing experience, and when I saw something white moving on the ground beneath a clump of fallen trees a few minutes later, I assumed it was the weasel again. A closer look revealed a Snowshoe Hare! While the white fur really stood out against the brown background, it wasn’t in a great position for any photographs. Eventually it scampered off into the marsh, ending my fabulous 5-mammal-species experience at Jack Pine Trail (the usual red and gray squirrels were present as well)! Since I couldn’t photograph the Snowshoe Hare I photographed this Eastern Gray Squirrel instead (click to embiggen):

Eastern Gray Squirrel - Jack Pine Trail

Eastern Gray Squirrel – Jack Pine Trail

The following day I decided to spend some time at Sarsaparilla Trail as there is good habitat there for Black-backed Woodpeckers. Sure enough, when I ventured off-trail I heard a tapping in the distance and made my way toward the source of the sound. Ultimately I caught a glimpse of the bird in flight and was happy when I found a beautiful female Black-backed Woodpecker only four feet above the ground. The more I see them, the more I appreciate their beautiful black and white pattern.

I heard another woodpecker tapping a short distance away, but found a Hairy Woodpecker instead of another northern species as I was hoping. Five minutes later it flew in and landed on the same tree as the Black-backed, forcing it to fly off. I thought I had lost it and so I returned to the trail and kept walking. In a relatively open area I heard tapping right above me and noticed the Black-backed Woodpecker again, this time in a tree right beside the trail! At first I wondered if it were a different one, until the Hairy Woodpecker flew in and landed on the same tree, again causing the Black-backed Woodpecker to fly off. I finished my walk at Sarsaparilla Trail and found it a third time, right in the open area across from the outhouse. This time I left before the Hairy Woodpecker could find and harass her. I was happy to see one at Sarsaparilla, as I had had my lifer Black-backed Woodpeckers here back in 2006.

Black-backed Woodpecker - Sarsaparilla Trail

Black-backed Woodpecker – Sarsaparilla Trail

On New Year’s Eve I returned to Jack Pine Trail to look for the Snowshoe Hare and the Short-tailed Weasel again. I had no luck with either, but found the cardinals, Blue Jays and chickadees in the same spot. Once again they all came in to feed when I threw seed on the ground. Cardinals are usually shy and wary of people, but even they came out onto the trail to snatch a seed or two.

Northern Cardinal - Jack Pine Trail

Northern Cardinal – Jack Pine Trail

A few Red-breasted Nuthatches were also in evidence. Sometimes they come out to the trail looking for food, but other times they don’t seem interested as I hear them twittering to each other high up in the conifers. This one did come looking for food, so I put some on an empty feeder and watched him feed.

Red-breasted Nuthatch - Jack Pine Trail

Red-breasted Nuthatch – Jack Pine Trail

Finally, here is a photo of an American Red Squirrel at the trail entrance. There is no escaping these cute little mammals; they, too, come running up to me at Jack Pine Trail. This is the same squirrel sticking its tongue out at me in the first photo.

Red Squirrel - Jack Pine Trail

Red Squirrel – Jack Pine Trail

Jack Pine Trail seems to have the most wildlife, and the greatest variety, of any of the Stony Swamp Trails in the winter. This is undoubtedly because so many people go there and feed the birds, the deer and the squirrels. While this has never seemed to be a bad thing to me, I am beginning to wonder as a few people in the OFNC have reported seeing coyotes along the trail lately, too. Birdseed litters several metres of trail near the bird feeder and along the trail that parallels Moodie Drive. Fruit and vegetables (and sometimes their remains) are left on a small wooden table for the deer. If these are attracting normally shy animals such as the Snowshoe Hare, it wouldn’t surprise me if they were attracting small rodents, such as mice and voles, which are in turn attracting predators such as coyotes and weasels. Again, this doesn’t seem to be a bad thing to me – I would be just as happy to see a Deer Mouse beneath the feeder as I would a coyote in the bush – but Ottawa is not known for its tolerance, and all it will take is one incident before the people once start requesting a coyote cull once again. Hopefully it won’t come to that, and that people and wildlife can both coexist together on the trails.

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