The Onset of Winter

Purple Finch

Purple Finch

Winter finally arrived yesterday with a mix of freezing rain and snow that left my driveway a frozen sheet of ice and kept me indoors most of the day. The temperature dropped overnight, and the high today reached only -8°C – the first really cold day we’ve had this winter. Even worse, there is a winter storm warning currently in effect that will last from midnight tonight until the following midnight. Environment Canada predicts 20-35 cm of heavy and blowing snow, so despite the cold I knew I had to get out today if I didn’t want to be stuck indoors for three days straight.

I didn’t leave until after lunch, when the temperature finally rose above -10°C (I just wasn’t ready for those minus double-digits yet)! My first stop was Century Road south of Richmond to check on the Mountain Bluebird. It’s only a 15-minute drive from my house, and as I was quite taken with this bird I was looking forward to seeing her again.

I didn’t see her along the fence line when I arrived, so I did a U-turn and drove down Goodstown Road to check for any berries she might be feeding on now that the snow has arrived. I didn’t see her along Goodstown, though I did find some fruit trees that looked promising, if somewhat sparse. I did another U-turn and drove back up to Century Road to do another scan. There I found her perched on a yellow traffic sign and stopped to take a look. She flew to the north side of Century Road, perched briefly before flying and landing in the middle of the road, then flew to the fence on the south side of the road. It was covered in a tangle of vines (wild grapes, perhaps?) and shrubs, and I lost her for about five or seven minutes until a jogger scared her up out of the ditch. She then flew toward Malakoff Road, landing on a post behind the house that sits on the southwest corner of the intersection.

Mountain Bluebird

Mountain Bluebird

I shot this photo from quite a long distance. The Mountain Bluebird flew to another post even further away before landing on the ground beneath the tall evergreen at the south end of the fence line. I left her there, then headed over to Jack Pine Trail to go for a winter walk. As it turns out, my sighting of the Mountain Bluebird today was the last one recorded in eBird; as far as I know, she was never seen again after the snowstorm of December 29th.

When I planned to go to Jack Pine Trail, I thought there might be a few people around given that it was 2:00 pm by then, but I wasn’t expecting to find that the parking lot was nearly full – given the sudden drop in temperature and icy trail conditions I thought most people would have stayed indoors or stuck to the salted sidewalks of the city shopping plazas. As most of the groups I encountered on my way in each had four or five people, I figured I would just enjoy the walk in the woods and give up on the idea of seeing anything fabulous like a Snowshoe Hare, Ruffed Grouse, or Northern Goshawk.

I was happy to see the feeder was up, though when I arrived no birds were visiting it. Two goldfinches perched in a tree nearby and seemed interested, but flew off when a noisy group of kids approached. I saw a Mourning Dove in the dense vegetation at the back where they usually hang out, and that was it. I made my way to the back of the trail, encountering large groups of people feeding chickadees and White-breasted Nuthatches. I spotted a couple of juncos and American Tree Sparrows lurking in the dense vegetation off-trail and threw some seeds for them to find. One American Tree Sparrow ventured out onto the path, but flew off when another group came walking down the trail.

The deeper into the trail system I walked, the fewer people I encountered. I spent some time at the back of the trail where Jack Pine Trail intersects with the West Hunt Club trails. There are lots of buckthorn berries in this area, and I was hoping to encounter some robins or waxwings – to no avail. I did see a Red-breasted Nuthatch and a Northern Cardinal feeding on some seeds on the ground. I also heard a couple of American Tree Sparrows calling from the bushes, and stood for a while to see if they would come out. About four of them did, and started feeding on the ground. A fifth bird looked slightly chunkier than the others; I was delighted when I realized it was a White-throated Sparrow!

White-throated Sparrow

White-throated Sparrow

It’s been a while since I last saw any White-throated Sparrows; I had seen three at Mud Lake on November 20th, and three at Jack Pine Trail in this exact location sometime after that (unfortunately it was so cold that day that my iPhone battery died and I wasn’t able to record my sightings in eBird). It was good to know that at least one of those White-throated Sparrows was still around.

I thought twice about taking the outer loop back to the parking lot; the gray day seemed to be getting darker, and a large number of crows were streaming overhead toward the east, presumably to their night-time roost near Riverside. I didn’t think I’d see as much anyway, as the northern part of the trail always seems to have more bird and wildlife activity in the winter. So I turned around and went back the way I came, stopping in to check the feeders once again. I stood there quietly for a few minutes, waiting to see if any birds would come now that there were fewer people around. Three Mourning Doves flew out of the cedars at the back; one even landed on the feeder. Mourning Doves seem to have become scarce these days, at least in my neighbourhood and the places where I usually go birding. A few usually take advantage of the feeder and spend the winter here; my high count is 14 back on February 21, 2015.

Mourning Dove

Mourning Dove

While I was watching the doves, I noticed a small bird fly in out of the corner of my eye. It landed on a branch close to the feeders, and I got my binoculars up in time to identify it as a Purple Finch! I am not sure whether this is a female or an immature male, as it takes males two years to attain their bright red adult plumage and first year males are brown and streaky like the females.

Purple Finch

Purple Finch

The Purple Finch is quite common in Stony Swamp; now that I know their call note (a distinctive tink! sound) I hear them almost every time I hit the trails. I’ve been hoping to get a good photo of one for quite some time now, and I was excited when it perched on a tree branch at about shoulder-height for a minute before flying to the feeder. This isn’t quite the angle that I’m used to seeing; it reminds me more of a Fox Sparrow than a finch!

Purple Finch

Purple Finch

Eventually the Purple Finch flew over to the feeder and began to eat. You can see it has a bit of a yellow gape in this photo:

Purple Finch

Purple Finch

The Purple Finch spent about a minute at the feeder before flying back to another branch about ten feet away from me, still carrying a sunflower seed. It was amazing to watch her (or him) feed quietly for three or four full minutes – normally Purple Finches are flighty and fly off when they realize I’m watching them, or else they stay high up in the tree tops where I can’t get any decent photos.

Purple Finch

Purple Finch

The Purple Finch and White-throated Sparrow made the trip there worth it, even if the trails were busier than I usually prefer. Although I didn’t see any interesting mammals or raptors, today’s outing proved that even on the days when the trails are full of people, there are still lots of birds around if you have the patience to observe calmly and quietly, and wait for them to come out into the open.

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