A Slow but Steady Start to the Year

Cedar Waxwing

Cedar Waxwing

We are now nearly three weeks into the new year and already I’m detecting a rather concerning weather trend: the sun comes out during the week, when I’m working, and then when the weekend arrives the clouds and the precipitation (both rain and snow so far this month) arrive with it. I prefer to do my birdwatching and photography on days with some sun, as the sunlight brightens up the dreary gray-and-white landscape and makes the colours on the birds pop. It’s often difficult to see the field marks on a dark bird silhouetted against a white sky, especially from a distance; and in the woods, it’s often too dark beneath the trees to get any decent photographs. Still, I hate being cooped up indoors for any length of time, so even when it’s been rainy or snowy I’ve been trying to get out to find some birds to add to my year list. The list has been growing slowly but steadily, with 12 new birds added since I went back to work on January 4th.

Bird no. 27 was a Pileated Woodpecker seen flying across Stony Swamp from the bus on my first day back at work. It was a bird I wasn’t expecting, though I see them flying through this area from time to time. That was the only year bird I saw during the week; I haven’t seen the Peregrine Falcons downtown so far, and wasn’t able to get out at lunch as I had a lot of catching up at work after the holiday.

On Saturday, January 9th I went to Mud Lake despite the threat of freezing and heavy rain. I had meant to go there on New Year’s Day, but because of the heavy flurries that day I ended up finishing my birding day early. When I arrived at Mud Lake, the rain hadn’t started yet, so I figured I would quickly check the ridge and Britannia Point for waterfowl. If time permitted, I hoped to check the storm water pond where the mockingbird was still being seen. There were several birds on the ridge including three or four cardinals, a couple of Dark-eyed Juncos, at least one American Tree Sparrow, and four American Robins.

American Robin

American Robin

Both of the tame Downy Woodpeckers came to my hand when they saw I was offering seeds for the chickadees, and a flock of goldfinches was foraging in the shrubs between the road and the top of the ridge. I heard the distinctive call note of a Purple Finch and found a female-plumaged bird among the flock; however, there were no House Finches to be seen.

From there I headed down the steep path to the channel behind the ridge. Someone had just been feeding the ducks, so they were all up on the snow; I found a single Canada Goose, two American Black Ducks, and the two American Wigeon among the large flock of mallards without any trouble. Both the goose and the wigeon were new for my year list, as were the Common Goldeneyes swimming in the channel behind them.

American Wigeon

American Wigeon

I decided to throw some of my seeds on the ground for the ducks to see if the wigeons were accustomed to being fed by humans, and to try to get some video. Well, the wigeons had no issues scrambling with the mallards to get their share of the food; they came within about four feet from where I was standing and ignored me altogether. I tried to shoot some video to capture the female growling at the mallards infringing on her space, but my camera wouldn’t stay focused on the ducks as I zoomed in closer. I was crouched down to get the photos, and that’s when this fellow walked up to me:

Canada Goose

Canada Goose

He was the only goose there; I was surprised there weren’t more trying to overwinter here, as the water remains open all year round and there is an abundant supply of food provided by the locals (though I wish they wouldn’t feed them bread, which isn’t any healthier for them than it is for humans – instead try feeding them corn, peas, rice, oats, mealworms, or chopped up lettuce and grapes). Although I quite enjoyed my time with them, I knew they would clean out my food supply if I let them, so I quickly retreated back to the main path before they could guilt me into giving them the rest of the food.

From there I headed over to Britannia Point, but other than a couple of Common Goldeneyes I saw no waterfowl on the river. It had started to rain by then, but it wasn’t freezing – I could walk along the road without sliding – so I decided to check out the storm water pond for the mockingbird. I was unable to find it, which didn’t surprise me; on Christmas Eve it had been sitting out in the sun. It was probably being smarter than I, spending the cold, rainy day tucked away in a sheltered area out of the rain. I wasn’t bothered by the rain too much, and decided to walk all the way around Mud Lake to see if I could find anything else of interest – possibilities included both Cedar and Bohemian Waxwings, White-throated Sparrow, House Finch, Hermit Thrush, Merlin, Cooper’s Hawk, and Sharp-shinned Hawk, but despite spending an hour walking around the lake I was unable to find any other species for my year list.

I did find a cute Eastern Gray Squirrel with fuzzy orange ears on my walk! Unfortunately the chickadees and cardinals did clean me out by the time I found him, so I had nothing left to give him.

Eastern Grey Squirrel

Eastern Grey Squirrel (click to enlarge)

Eastern Grey Squirrel

Eastern Grey Squirrel

I headed back to the ridge, still hoping to find the House Finches that often inhabit the shrubs there, but found only the same birds there as before. There did seem to be a lot of cardinals around.

Northern Cardinal (male)

Northern Cardinal (male)

Northern Cardinal (female)

Northern Cardinal (female)

We were supposed to get more rain the following day, but I took a drive out to the Trail Road dump first thing anyway. I was hoping to find some Horned Larks and another Lapland Longspur, but when I saw the flock of Snow Buntings at the corner of Barnsdale and Moodie they flew off across the field before I could scan them for other species. I waited for several minutes, hoping they would come back, and had a Red-tailed Hawk fly across the road as a consolation prize. While I was waiting, I took this photo of the gray, January morning just before the rain started.

Before the Rain

Before the Rain

By the time I reached the landfill the rain was just starting. I found two Red-tailed Hawks in the vicinity, but no gulls. I didn’t stay long as the rain started coming down hard enough to make visibility difficult.

On Wednesday the sun came out, and by then the temperature had dropped. The overnight low was -18°C, and it was still about -10°C when I headed out to Billings Bridge at lunch to look for ducks, gulls, and mammals. I’ve had good luck finding mammals such as otters and beavers there in the past, but didn’t see so much as a squirrel as I walked from the parking lot across from the mall to the little park on the opposite side of the bridge where the ducks hang out. There were no gulls or raptors, either, but at least I got another year bird – a female Common Merganser was #32 for the year. There were only two Common Goldeneyes in the area, and when one swam up close to the shore I decided to take his picture.

Common Goldeneye

Common Goldeneye

I was still in the mood for river birds the following day, so this time I went to Strathcona Park at lunch to look for the female Wood Duck overwintering there and to get a better look at the new footbridge. The Wood Duck was easy to find, sitting on a shelf of ice with the mallards. Again there were no gulls or other birds of interest.

Wood Duck

Wood Duck

A female spent the winter here last year, and there’s some speculation that this is the same bird. If so, she must be relieved that it hasn’t been as cold this year as it was last winter.

Wood Duck

Wood Duck

When the weekend came the clouds rolled back in. It snowed most of Saturday, but after lunch I decided to head over to Jack Pine Trail anyway, as I was still hoping to see the White-throated Sparrows I had seen back in December. It was a fairly quiet outing, but I managed to tally all three resident woodpecker species, four Dark-eyed Juncos, one American Tree Sparrow, and one White-throated Sparrow! It was fairly shy, staying back from the trail among the leafless vegetation. This was bird #34 for my year list.

White-throated Sparrow

White-throated Sparrow

The American Tree Sparrow was braver, coming out to the path to feed on the seed on the ground.

American Tree Sparrow

American Tree Sparrow

I also found bird #35 for my year list when I noticed a Northern Shrike perching high up in a tree on Barnsdale Road. My visit to the Trail Road landfill went about as well as expected, with three Red-tailed Hawks, one Herring Gull, and two Great Black-backed Gulls among the multitude of crows and starlings.

The next day I drove over to the New Edinburgh area to look for the Summer Tanager that has been reported there off and on for the past few weeks. It is an older neighbourhood, with small houses on small properties all jammed up close together, with enough shrubs, large trees and cedar hedges to appeal to the bird life there. As soon as I got out of the car I heard the calls of over a dozen robins; there were a number of ornamental berry trees in the area (perhaps a type of Mountain Ash?), and they were feeding on the berries. I spent almost an hour wandering around the intersection closest to the feeder where the Summer Tanager liked to feed, to no avail. However, I did see 13 species, including a Pileated Woodpecker, a couple of White-breasted Nuthatches, a Dark-eyed Junco, about 30 robins, and best of all, about 20 Cedar Waxwings! I heard them before I saw them land in a tree across the street. I thought they might be Bohemian Waxwings, as large flocks of Cedar Waxwings are uncommon in Ottawa in the winter, but when I counted them they all turned out to be Cedar Waxwings, bird #36 for my year list.

Cedar Waxwing

Cedar Waxwing

Cedar Waxwing

Cedar Waxwing

From there I drove over to Bate Island hoping to see the Harlequin Duck that has been overwintering on the Ottawa River. When I arrived I found a few other birders looking for the duck, including Chris Lewis. We scanned the water off the northeast corner of the island where it had last been seen, but found only Common Goldeneyes. One of the others approached the little wall at the edge of the island for a better look, and to everyone’s shock the Harlequin flew out from directly beneath it along with a couple of goldeneyes! Apparently the ducks had been sheltering against wall where they were invisible to those of us standing on the snow-covered grass.

Harlequin Duck

Harlequin Duck

I was really happy to see this bird up close, as the only other ones I’ve seen (both at Bate Island in the winter of 2012-13 and at Strathcona Park in the fall of 2014) had been much further out. I would have gotten some lovely photos if the day wasn’t so dark and gloomy.

Harlequin Duck with Common Goldeneyes

Harlequin Duck with Common Goldeneyes

Although there was some confusion at first as to whether this was a female or an immature male, over time it began to develop the plumage of an adult male. I was really hoping it would stay until spring, so I could see the brilliant blue and chestnut colours of a male in breeding plumage, but it has not been reported since the beginning of February.

Chris and I decided to head over to Mud Lake afterward to look for the Northern Mockingbird, but ended up striking out there. This left me with a batting percentage of 0.33 as I only found one of my three target birds for the day (Summer Tanager, Harlequin Duck, and Northern Mockingbird). This is typical of birding in January in Ottawa: although the ducks tend to be reliable where there is open water, the songbirds move around with no apparent pattern. Sometimes they show up when you least expect it (like the shrike on Barnsdale Road and the Cedar Waxwings in New Edinburgh), while other times they fail to appear even when you know they are frequenting a certain area. This is another reason why I don’t chase very many birds any more: they have wings, and definitely enjoy putting them to use!

My last new bird for the year was Bohemian Waxwing (#38) seen on Rifle Road and on Moodie Drive across from Nortel. Large flocks have finally been moving through the area; these winter wanderers are also quite erratic, though they usually stay in areas with lots of berries until they clean them all out.

If I’m lucky I’ll get up to to 50 species of birds by the time migration begins, but it’s a difficult feat in the middle of winter, especially as I work full time. New year birds become easier to find toward the end of the March, but in the meantime, pickings are slim, and not always easy to track down.

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