Predator and Prey

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Meadow Vole

While a lot people like to get out early on Boxing Day to hit the stores, I like to get out early to hit the trails. It was very quiet and peaceful at the Beaver Trail this morning, and I had the place to myself for almost the entire 90 minutes I was there. I chose the Beaver Trail as I hadn’t been there since early October and was curious as to whether the new boardwalk was finished. Besides, you never know what might show up in Stony Swamp – my hopes were high for something fantastic, like Great Horned Owl, Northern Goshawk, Black-backed Woodpecker, American Three-toed Woodpecker, Pine Grosbeak or either crossbill species. My expectations were realistic, however, and I figured I would be lucky if I saw a Ruffed Grouse. The temperature was only -3°C, and although it felt cold after the 17°C weather we had on Christmas Eve, the day was gorgeous with the sun sparkling on the frost-coated trees and vegetation.

As expected for this time of year, the woods were quiet. At first the only birds I observed were a couple of chickadees, White-breasted Nuthatches and crows. I thought that the ponds might still be open, but both were frozen solid.

Things changed when I reached the new boardwalk at the back of the trail. The boardwalk looked beautiful, and still had that “new” freshly-cut wood smell. I heard the tink! of a Purple Finch calling before I saw her, a female perching in a tree high above the marsh. A Blue Jay was perching at the top of a tree nearby. Both flew off when I approached, even though I tried to lure them back by placing sunflower seeds and peanuts on the boardwalk rail. The chickadees and a pair of White-breasted Nuthatches were quick to fly in and take advantage of the food, and I spent an enjoyable 15 minutes watching them feed.

Frosty Morning

Frosty Morning in the Marsh (click to enlarge)

Then I spotted a small, bright white weasel running along the boardwalk toward the observation platform where I was standing. It was carrying something in its mouth – a dead vole, I thought – but then it dropped the item on the boardwalk and disappeared beneath it. I figured it would come back to retrieve its prey, and I had just enough time to focus my camera on the vole – though none to zoom in on it – when the weasel poked its head in the gap below the curb and grabbed it.

Short-tailed Weasel with prey

Short-tailed Weasel with prey

It scampered beneath the boardwalk, emerged on the other side, then disappeared into the vegetation covering a fallen tree trunk. I thought it was gone for good, or had exited a hole on the other side, but about a minute later it emerged without the vole. It climbed back onto the boardwalk and paused for a moment, allowing me one shot before it hurried off the way it had come.

Short-tailed Weasel

Short-tailed Weasel (click to enlarge)

I was thrilled with the sighting, as I only see about one or two weasels a year if I’m lucky – my only other weasel sighting this year was on June 13th at Jack Pine Trail when I caught a glimpse of one in the marsh at the back of the trail system. Even when I do see them, they are difficult to photograph, as they move quickly and often disappear into the nooks and crannies of their habitat. This was the first time I had ever seen one at the Beaver Trail; for such a common creature, Short-tailed Weasels sure are elusive. My field guide, Mammals of Ontario by Tamara Eder (Lone Pine Publishing), describes this species as one of the most abundant land carnivores in our province, but says they are not commonly seen given their nocturnal habits and preference for areas with heavy cover. They are most common in coniferous or mixed forests, particularly near streams and wetlands, which makes Stony Swamp the perfect place for them.

After the weasel disappeared, I became aware of movement in the water below the boardwalk. Although the pond was frozen, water was still flowing in the open area below the beaver dam. I saw a vole – most certainly a Meadow Vole, given that it lacked the reddish patch on the back – emerge from the dense vegetation and stand briefly in the water. It sniffed around a bit, then darted back into the vegetation.

Meadow Vole

Meadow Vole

I froze, waited for about half a minute, and it appeared again. This time it scurried up onto a stick floating in the water, then plunged into the water, swam a short loop, and scurried back onto the vegetation at the water’s edge. This was the first time I had ever seen a Meadow Vole swim, and it was both utterly unexpected and utterly charming. I’m used to seeing beavers and muskrats in the water, of course, and still find it something of a surprise when I see how well mink can swim, even though I know they are strong swimmers. Seeing this tiny rodent – which seemed nothing more than a soft, round ball of fur – plunge into the shallow but steadily moving water and steer itself in a quick circle seemed a bit of a miracle.

Meadow Vole

Meadow Vole

I am guessing the unseasonal warmth had brought it out into the open, for Meadow Voles normally spend the winter in the subnivean layer between the snow pack and the ground where they create tunnels that run between logs, root systems, shrubs and other sheltered areas. These extensive tunnels usually become visible as the snow melts in the spring.

Meadow Vole

Meadow Vole

I kept an eye out for the weasel in case it came back, but the vole was safe. Most voles live short lives, typically less than a year, and are prey to a large number of carnivores including owls, raptors, snakes, foxes and weasels. Though abundant, I seldom see Meadow Voles – they are usually more nocturnal during the summer and diurnal during the winter, when they disappear beneath the snow pack. As with the Short-tailed Weasel, I only see them a few times a year, and they are usually too quick to retreat into the vegetation for me to photograph. I was exceptionally lucky that I managed to photograph both the weasel and the vole within the space of few minutes. Eventually the vole plunged into the water and swam beneath the boardwalk to the other side. It didn’t return.

While I was focusing my attention on the Meadow Vole, I was aware of the sweet call notes of a couple of American Tree Sparrows in the vegetation behind me. I continued to stand quietly on the boardwalk, and about five of them flew out to feed on some seed left on the curb of the boardwalk – I hadn’t even noticed the seed was there. These birds have been difficult to find this month, but I wasn’t surprised to see them there as the Beaver Trail is a repeat winter site for them. Other places where these sparrows can usually be found with some reliability are the Hilda Road feeders, Trail Road, and Jack Pine Trail.

American Tree Sparrow

American Tree Sparrow

It was amazing to watch the American Tree Sparrows come out into the open, while the White-breasted Nuthatches, chickadees and Downy Woodpeckers continued to feed on the seed I had put on the railing. I stood quietly in that one spot for about half an hour and thoroughly enjoyed it; long enough to make me realize just how more you can see just by standing very still and watching quietly. This is one of the reasons I prefer going out on my own early in the morning.

American Tree Sparrow

American Tree Sparrow

When the tree sparrows flew back into the tangle of tree branches I left, too, though I didn’t see anything as interesting on the rest of my walk. I spent some time in the wildflower meadow, trying to photograph the frost crystals on the vegetation. I had fun playing with the settings on my camera; the close-up mode under the “scene” menu seemed to work better than the macro mode on the dial, and I think the resulting photos turned out well. Each of these photos can be enlarged by clicking on them:

Frost-covered Wild Marjoram

In the Wildflower Meadow

In the Wildflower Meadow

After lunch I went out to the Moodie Drive Quarry to look for another predator that had been present in the area: a Rough-legged Hawk. Although I had seen one near the Lafleche dump in February, that area is outside of the Ottawa circle and I still needed one for my Ottawa year list. I also needed Iceland Gull, which has been seen occasionally on the quarry pond and along Trail Road. I found the Rough-legged Hawk fairly easily, sitting on a large sandbank opposite the gate. About 5,000 Canada Geese inhabited the pond, along with a few mallards, a male Ring-necked Duck and two Common Mergansers. A couple of gulls flew by in the distance; none were sitting on the water.

I drove down Trail Road next hoping to see some gulls sitting out in the open, but was disappointed again. There is no good view of the dump right now, as the facility has built a large embankment between the landfill and the road. This makes gull-spotting difficult, except for those flying in and out of the area, and the day had darkened considerably since the morning, making viewing difficult. I turned around and headed back out, and spotted a Red-tailed Hawk flying west.

I went home via Cambrian Road, and as I was traveling past the pasture where the Mountain Bluebird was seen in late November, a Red-tailed Hawk (perhaps the same one I’d noticed earlier) flew over the car toward the woodlot on the north side of the road. I pulled over, but the hawk was gone. Something else caught my eye, however; a robin-sized bird with a long tail had landed in the top of a tree on the south side of the road. The long tail caught my interest, as not many birds of that size which stick around for the winter have long tails. Because of the overcast conditions I had trouble making out its identity at first, but then it started vocalizing – first a couple of whiny, begging sounds that made me think of a mammal in distress, then a gurgling song with no real melody. The different sounds made me wonder if it were a starling, but when I finally got a clear look at the bird’s face I realized it was a Northern Shrike!

This is only the second time I’ve heard one singing – I heard one in late winter/early spring several years ago (2008 maybe?), and it came as just as much of a surprise to me then as this bird singing surprised me now. I took some video of it, just to record the song – the visual isn’t great and the traffic noise is annoying, but at least you can hear what the bird sounds like.

Eventually it flew off and landed in a distant tree. Interestingly, this is only my second shrike of the season – I saw my first on November 7th at the Hilda Road feeders. Northern Shrikes are more difficult to find some years than others, and I thought maybe this was going to be one of those winters where they are scarce. However, with the colder temperatures just beginning to arrive, maybe they are now just arriving on their winter territories.

It was a fabulous day for mammals and predators, though it’s hard to believe that it’s already the end of December and that winter is technically here. Maybe once the winter weather arrives we’ll get some more winter finches and gulls – and maybe those northern woodpeckers I was fantasizing about will show up, too!


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