A Winter Lifer

Snowy Owl

Snowy Owl

It’s been a long time since my last blog post. I haven’t been going out birding much this winter; the cold has been intolerable, with most mornings starting off well below -20°C. Even the daytime highs have been well below seasonal this year – I can think of only a few occasions where they have risen above -10C. In fact, this winter has been so cold that on February 25th, the Rideau Canal broke the record for the number of consecutive days it has remained open: 47, the most since it first opened 45 years ago. Normally heavy snowstorms and a rainy mid-winter thaw result in the canal’s closure for at least a couple of days each season. Not this year.

We haven’t received many heavy snowstorms since the new year, but the few that have occurred on the weekend have started early in the day. Twice I went out birding first thing in the morning and only managed to spend an hour outdoors before a curtain of snow descended. Ottawa actually hasn’t received a lot of snow this winter, but since we haven’t had any significant thaws either, the snow cover is fairly deep.

Because there are fewer birds around in the winter, especially one as cold as this, I sometimes go looking for birds that others have reported, especially those seen in places I normally visit in the winter anyway (Mud Lake, Strathcona Park, Stony Swamp). Normally I prefer to visit my own favourite areas and look for my own birds there. However, I never did see a Greater Scaup last year, and find them hard to distinguish from Lesser Scaup, so on January 18th I went to Mud Lake to look for the female Greater Scaup overwintering there. I also wanted to look for the robins that had been reported. I found the Greater Scaup in the channel just beyond the construction site; she was close enough to get some great views through the scope and study the shape of her head. Hopefully I will be able to identify some in the spring when the waterfowl begin migrating through.

Greater Scaup

Greater Scaup

I also found the robins without any problem. There were at least five, possibly more, feeding on some berries along the trail by the northeast corner of the lake. There were some hungry chickadees and White-breasted Nuthatches in the area, too, so I stopped to feed them. While I was feeding them and watching the robins, I heard a soft, hollow “chuck” note of a Hermit Thrush. I turned around to see one in the shrubs. It flew down to a tangle of branches in the flooded area east of the path, so I grabbed my camera and started taking photos; this is the best image I got, but it shows the reddish tail, spotted breast and white eye-ring.

Hermit Thrush

Hermit Thrush

This is the second time I’ve discovered a Hermit Thrush at Mud Lake in the winter after migration has ended. While a good number (about 10, I think) were seen around Ottawa on the Christmas Bird Count, I hadn’t heard of any being observed after the new year. This one is likely overwintering here rather than a late migrant. Shortly after I noticed the Hermit Thrush, an accipiter flew over and landed in the trees overlooking the bay. There were too many trees in the way to get a good look, but the Hermit Thrush and the robins and all of the chickadees and nuthatches froze until the accipiter flew off, chasing a group of small birds (likely starlings).

I took a walk around the lake, something I don’t often do in winter, but did this time as I was hoping to find some waxwings in the buckthorn shrubs along the south side of the conservation area. I didn’t see any, but I did see two Brown Creepers, five Dark-eyed Juncos, and two White-throated Sparrows near the parking lot.

The next day was a work day, so at lunch I headed over to Strathcona Park where I’d heard a Wood Duck, a Pied-billed Grebe and a Northern Pintail had been seen on the Rideau River. I was surprised by how small the open patch of water was – it was only about the size of a city block. I wasn’t surprised to find only seven birds present on the water: a Common Goldeneye, a Common Merganser, the female Wood Duck, and four mallards sleeping on the ice. There was still some open water north of the 417 bridge at that time, so all the waterfowl were likely hanging out in that area.

Wood Duck

Wood Duck

The following weekend was cold, but on Saturday I decided to do some “car birding”. I went to the Trail Road Landfill where I found two Red-tailed Hawks being harassed by the crows. A group of gulls flew over and I identified two Great Black-backed Gulls, a Glaucous Gull and two Herring Gulls among them. From there I headed south to Lockhead Road which didn’t disappoint – a large group of songbirds feeding in the field contained about 50 Horned Larks, three Snow Buntings, and five Lapland Longspurs.

On January 25th, Deb and I decided to try for the Gyrfalcon hanging out at the Lafleche Dump east of Casselman. The Gyrfalcon is largest falcon in the world, and the last local species I needed for my life list. Gyrfalcons are either gray or white, and while they often briefly pass through Ottawa, none has lingered long enough to establish a winter territory in several years (not since I started birding, anyway!). This bird, a gray morph, was first discovered in January, and has found the hundreds of gulls, crows and starlings at the landfill to its liking. So Deb and I headed east one cold Sunday afternoon to see if we could find it, stopping by Indian Creek Road in Larose Forest first where we saw the Evening Grosbeaks and Common Redpolls visiting a private feeder. From there we went to the landfill at the end of Lafleche Road but didn’t see much other than several gulls roosting in the field outside of the dump despite a long wait. We later found out that the Gyrfalcon did not put in an appearance that day.

The first Saturday of February wasn’t too cold, but snow was in the forecast. I managed to get out for only an hour before the snow started raining down, first visiting the Northern Shoveler at Appaloosa Park before heading north to Shirley’s Bay to look for the Bohemian Waxwings on Rifle Road. Just before I reached my turn, I saw what was likely a large flock of Bohemian Waxwings flying south across Carling. There were no waxwings along Rifle Road at all.

Northern Shoveler

Northern Shoveler

I didn’t get out again until February 22nd when I met up with Deb again to look for the Gyrfalcon. First, however, I stopped in at Sarsaparilla Trail where I almost had a Hairy Woodpecker land on my hand! I was feeding the chickadees when one landed on a small tree right beside me, swooped in, then veered off at the last second. I cleared off a spot on the bench and put some bird seed there; the Hairy Woodpecker joined the chickadees and Red-breasted Nuthatch in taking some.

Deb and I drove straight to the Lafleche dump after meeting at 9:00 where almost immediately we saw a Rough-legged Hawk being escorted from the area by a couple of crows. We also saw a pair of ravens flying together in formation, as well as the numerous starlings and crows. Then I spotted another pair of birds flying together. One was a crow, while the other was paler, with long pointed wings. It was a falcon, but was it the Gyrfalcon? We lost it after the crow chased it behind a building. There is a long knoll that blocks the view of the dump from the gate, and although we saw hundreds of crows and starlings rise up from behind it several times, presumably flushed by the Gyrfalcon or another raptor, we weren’t able to spot it. Two more birders who had driven all the way from Toronto joined us a little later; not long after they arrived Deb managed to spot the Gyrfalcon perching on a post straight ahead of us between two large snow mounds. Despite the distance (way too far to consider photographing), I could see it had a pale head and lacked the dark “sideburns” of a Peregrine Falcon. It was a lifer for me – my 317th species overall and my 298th species seen in Canada.

The Gyrfalcon sat on its perch for a good ten minutes, then disappeared as I was attempting to digiscope it (my efforts failed spectacularly). Satisfied with our view, we drove around the east end for a bit, encountering a large flock of Snow Buntings and a single Snowy Owl in an agricultural area. Unlike the Snowy Owls I’ve seen in the west end, this one was not surrounded by a clutch of admirers. It was thrilling just to spend a few quiet minutes in its presence, admiring its snow-white beauty and taking a few photographs before moving on.

Snowy Owl

Snowy Owl

February ended almost as cold as it started, and it doesn’t look as though temperatures will be returning to normal any time soon. Altogether it has been a much colder winter than average, and Environment Canada confirms February 2015 was the coldest in Ottawa in 115 years. February’s deep-freeze is the result of a long-staying area of high pressure over the coast of British Columbia which has forced air coming in from the Pacific Ocean to curve well to the north before returning to Central and Eastern Canada directly from the frigid Arctic. Environment Canada’s monthly report states that “as of February 25, the February 2015 temperature anomaly over eastern Ontario and south-western Québec was never observed before since 1900 making it a 115-year return period event (1 case out of 115 years). The second coldest was 1979.”

Two-week forecast Feb 24

Two-week forecast – Still well below seasonal

Last year an exceptionally cold winter was followed by an exceptionally cold spring with temperatures well below seasonal until early April. Migration was noticeably delayed, with my first Red-winged Blackbird sighting occurring on March 29, 2014 – 18 days later than the average date of my first sighting. Although the temperature appears to be increasing, it doesn’t appear to approach the seasonal average until early March. I’m hoping that spring arrives right on time this year, and that will we start seeing some migrants soon!

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2 thoughts on “A Winter Lifer

    • Thanks Sue! I went to look for the Hermit Thrush on Sunday and didn’t see it, though the robins were still around. Didn’t see the Greater Scaup, either, so perhaps they’ve moved on with this miserable winter we’ve had. I think the shoveler is still around, though!

      It’s finally beginning to feel a bit like spring (or maybe less like winter). It will be nice not to have to bundle up in so many layers when I go out!

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