Mockingbird Hide-and-Seek

Northern Mockingbird

Northern Mockingbird

As is usual this time of year, the birding around Ottawa has become very quiet. A few uncommon overwintering birds are still around, such as the Northern Mockingbird at Mud Lake and the Harlequin Duck at Bate Island, but overall there has been little change to the birding scene. It is about this time of year that the law of diminishing returns comes into effect – the more one goes out, the fewer new or interesting birds there are to see, and it seems to make no difference whether you are out birding for two hours or five. Given the weather this time of year, I prefer shorter outings to longer ones: long enough to get some exercise and stave off the boredom that comes from spending too much time indoors, but short enough to minimize my exposure to the elements.

I spent both last Sunday and this Sunday at Mud Lake, one of the few reliable places to see lots of birds even in the depths of winter. (Note that I didn’t say “species” – most of the birds will be chickadees and mallards, with a few woodpeckers and cardinals thrown in!) There are usually a few different types of raptor around, the most common ones being Merlin and Cooper’s Hawk, and sometimes some more unusual species turn up there as well – such as Hermit Thrush, Winter Wren, Bohemian Waxwings, winter finches, owls, and various waterfowl drawn to the large expanse of open water. I still hadn’t managed to add the Northern Mockingbird to my year list after two attempts so far, so it was high on my list of likely birds.

I started my walk along the ridge where I found a large group of robins, a few starlings, a couple of cardinals and some chickadees. The robins were drinking water at the base of the ridge, and although I watched them for a while, I didn’t see any sign of the Hermit Thrush, which has probably long since departed (it was last seen on January 9th according to eBird). From there I made my way down to the channel behind the ridge, and as soon as I started walking toward the water a group of mallards started walking toward me. They are clearly used to being fed, so I threw them some of peanut/seed mixture I usually bring for the chickadees. The Canada Goose and a single black duck soon joined them.

From there I headed along the east side of the lake, all the way to the John A. MacDonald Parkway where the bike path travels east toward downtown. I checked the shrubs behind the small storm water pond, but didn’t see any movement or the pale gray breast of a large songbird sitting quietly in the vegetation. I trudged east toward the creek, intending to follow the path there into the woods, and that’s when I did see a pale gray bird sitting quietly in a tree right above the stream. A quick look through my binoculars confirmed it as the mockingbird.

Northern Mockingbird

Northern Mockingbird

It wasn’t doing much of anything; just sitting and taking in the gray, overcast day. I took a few photos, then took a few steps closer and took a few more. I repeated this two more times, and even though I still wasn’t very close, it flew off into the shrubs behind the pond. Later, when I checked the photos out on the computer, I realized that while they weren’t bad, something about the bird seemed wrong. It wasn’t until I checked a few photos online that I realized that the eyes were too dark – mockingbirds have yellow eyes. When I brightened the exposure and enlarged the photos I could tell that the mockingbird’s irises were indeed yellow, but due to the overcast day and the distance the yellow irises are completely shadowed.

I finished my walk around the lake, finding a single junco, several House Finches, and at least six cardinals in the open sumac field south of the lake. I was disappointed not to find any birds of prey or even any interesting mammals, but after 90 minutes at the conservation area I was ready to call it a day.

Later in the week, someone reported seeing a male Northern Pintail behind the ridge. Deb and I decided to head there this morning, hoping also to see the mockingbird there as she hasn’t seen it yet. Unlike last weekend, the ridge was quiet. The robins, chickadees and starlings had all vanished, leaving only a couple of cardinals and juncos. The trails were icy after yesterday’s above-zero temperatures were followed by an overnight freeze; we carefully made our day down to the riparian area behind the ridge where all the ducks and the single goose have been hanging out. The mallards were swimming next to the ice-encrusted shore, and when they saw us coming they walked up to greet us. This time I had brought a small bag of peanuts just for them, and when I started tossing the food onto the ground the whole flock flew in. The mallards were accompanied by the usual American Black Ducks (two today) and the lone Canada Goose, which once again barged right up to me – even hissing when it reached me. I made sure it had its own share of food while I tossed more peanuts out into the growing crowd. There were over 100 mallards altogether, but we didn’t see any sign of the Northern Pintail.

After leaving the ducks we continued toward the point where we found a male Common Merganser swimming offshore. From there we made our way slowly along the east side of the lake where we found several chickadees, White-breasted Nuthatches, and both Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers foraging for food. We also found the flock of American Robins – about twenty of them were in the area, most of which were on the ground. Some were drinking from the open water running from the culvert toward the river, while others were walking between the trees. The recent thaw has exposed small circles of grass at the base of the larger trees, and I saw a couple of robins searching for food in these exposed areas. Very few were sitting in trees or foraging for berries.

American Robin

American Robin

It was lovely to hear them calling softly in the woods. Although none of them were in full song, the noise of such a large group of birds – which included a couple of starlings, several chickadees, two White-breasted Nuthatches, and even a couple of goldfinches – was definitely welcome in the winter-quiet woods.

American Robin

American Robin

After getting our fill of the flock, we continued on our way toward the storm water pond. Although we spent about 20 minutes in the area searching for the mockingbird, it refused to show itself. I wasn’t terribly surprised, as the wind was brisk out in the open, and the damp cold made it unpleasant to be out in the open for very long. It was not a day to be sitting quietly out in the open, and when our brief search failed to turn up the bird, we quickly returned to the shelter of the woods.

We didn’t feel like walking all the way around the lake, as the icy path was difficult to navigate and I was starting to feel the cold. Altogether we ended up with 15 species for the day, compared with the 14 I had seen last weekend. Most of the same birds were present both days; the only differences were the mockingbird and House Finches seen last Sunday, and the Common Merganser, Hairy Woodpecker, and American Goldfinches seen today. So far the mockingbird has been adept at playing hide and seek with the birders trying to find it; although I’ve gone looking for it four times so far this year, only once did I find it. Hopefully it will remain in the area until spring, when it will be easier to find by listening for its wonderful song.

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