A Christmas Eve Mockingbird

Northern Mockingbird

Northern Mockingbird

The Ottawa-Gatineau annual Christmas Bird Count was held on December 20th, and with the warm December we’ve had so far, there was no snow cover and almost all the rivers and ponds were completely open. This resulted in the second-highest number of species ever tallied; among the 86 species were a large number of waterbirds and late-lingering land birds that would have otherwise flown south by now or perished in the cold. The open rivers and ponds also resulted in the highest number of Canada Geese, Buffleheads and Hooded Mergansers ever tallied, and White-breasted Nuthatches, White-throated Sparrows, and Dark-eyed Juncos also enjoyed new high counts.

Four new species were added to the count list: Golden Eagle (Gatineau sector), Greater White-fronted Goose (Britannia sector), an exceptionally late Wood Thrush discovered by Chris Traynor in the Britannia sector, and an exceptionally late Cape May Warbler in the Gloucester sector. Other good birds found that are not normally here this time of year include Northern Flicker, Swainson’s Thrush, Belted Kingfisher, and Yellow-rumped Warbler. Two birds discovered at Mud Lake particularly interested me: Northern Mockingbird and Winter Wren, both of which I needed for my year list. Both are hardy birds, seen from time to time in the winter. Ottawa is at the northern-most limit of the Northern Mockingbird’s range, which makes it a difficult bird to find – I don’t see them every year, and usually don’t expect to. Winter Wrens are short-distance migrants, the northern-most limit of their winter range occurring in Pennsylvania and New York. Still, every now and then one pops up in Ottawa long after it should have headed south, such as the one I discovered at Mud Lake on January 28, 2012 when it started scolding me near the river behind the ridge. I don’t know how I managed to miss Winter Wren this year, but I was hoping the one discovered on the Christmas Bird Count was still around.

December 24th was the first day of my holidays. The temperature was supposed to rise to an unbelievable 17°C, so I dropped my fiancé off at work and went to Mud Lake for a few hours in the morning. I was a bit cold at first, as the sun was still very low in the sky and I only had a light jacket on, but about 15 minutes later a gust of wind blew through the woods and the temperature jumped about 10°C – the difference (and the sudden warmth) was noticeable.

I took my time walking over to the storm water retention pond where the mockingbird had been found four days earlier. Along the way I saw five Hooded Mergansers diving in the middle of the pond (eBird flagged them as rare) and about 200 Canada Geese swimming on the lake or flying overhead. There were lots of Northern Cardinals present in the southeastern section of the conservation area; most were in the woods just beyond the open sumac field, and at least four were feeding on seed left on the ground in the woods. I also counted nine White-breasted Nuthatches, including a group of three in the same area. Other birds of interest included a Brown Creeper and a Pileated Woodpecker. I was hoping the four wigeon were still around, but I didn’t see them.

I met one photographer coming back from the creek area who told me that the mockingbird was still around, so I picked up the pace. When I reached the retention pond, the water appeared to be too high to walk all the way around it as I had planned; we’d had a lot of rain lately, and the water levels were high. I decided to check the shrubbery on the far side of Pinecrest Creek next, but the ground was wet and swampy in places so I turned back. I spied a small trail running between the pond and the creek, and as I began walking up the path I noticed the gleaming white belly of a bird sitting in the vegetation along the north side of the storm water pond. It was the mockingbird, sitting casually in the middle of a large buckthorn shrub.

Northern Mockingbird

Northern Mockingbird

There was no way to get close to it, so I decided to see what my new Nikon could do. The bird was too far away for the full 60x optical zoom, so I extended the camera’s reach by activating the digital zoom for a total magnification of 120x. With the digital zoom engaged, the camera loses the ability to focus tightly on the subject; still, I managed to get two usable photos of the Northern Mockingbird. This was species no. 211 for my Ottawa year list. I never saw one here last year, and my last Ottawa sighting was in June 2013 when I discovered one in my own subdivision, singing on the roof of a house next to a neighbourhood park.

Northern Mockingbird

Northern Mockingbird

This bird was utterly silent. I watched it for about 10 minutes while another group of birders joined me; then I turned around and went looking for the Winter Wren on the eastern side of the lake. I didn’t find it, though the strong wind made it difficult to hear the chip notes of small birds in the vegetation. Even though I missed the wren, the mockingbird was a thrilling bird to see on Christmas Eve, especially one as mild and un-Christmasy as this.

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