Singing Larks

Horned Lark

Horned Lark

February is my least favourite month of the year, and the weather we’ve had so far has not given me any reason to change my opinion. First we had the bitter cold of the Family Day long weekend. Then on February 16th, Ottawa set a new record for the amount of snowfall in one day: 50 cm. Of course, that was a work day, and even downtown the plows had trouble keeping up with the accumulation on the roads – the snow was falling in a heavy downpour, and both the roads and the sidewalks were a mess throughout the evening commute. A week later, the city received a significant amount of rain followed by a sudden drop in temperature which turned the sidewalks into ice. Another brief rise in temperatures forced the Rideau Canal skateway to officially close for the season on February 25th after one of its shortest season in 46 years – 34 days with only 18 skating days. I have never felt less like birding since this obsession started about nine years ago.

Yesterday, however, I was tired of being cooped up indoors and decided to venture out for the first time in about three weeks. The sun was shining intermittently, and the temperature was bearable – about -7°C when I left at 9:00, rising to about 0°C by the time I got home. I figured the nice day would bring the people out in droves, but I didn’t see anyone at Jack Pine Trail for the first hour and a half that I was there. I stopped by the bird feeder first, where I found a single American Tree Sparrow, five Mourning Doves sitting in the trees, and the usual assortment of cardinals, nuthatches, chickadees and woodpeckers. Four Dark-eyed Juncos came out to feed on some seed on the trail, but there was no sign of the White-throated Sparrow I had seen over a month ago in the same area. In fact, there were surprisingly few birds along the trail beyond the bird feeder.

I ventured to the back of the trail where it meets the West Hunt Club trail, and beyond it to the stream where the Arrowhead Spiketails breed. Even in the winter the dragonfly larvae are eking out a life beneath the ice, hiding in the sediment with only their head and eyes peeping out, waiting to ambush unsuspecting prey. It seems hard to believe that beneath the frozen stillness of the stream’s surface, many creatures are going about their lives, living and dying while waiting for the warmth to return so that they can emerge as winged insects in the spring.

Icy Stream

Icy Stream (click to enlarge)

I found lots interesting tracks in the snow beyond the stream, including deer, squirrel, Snowshoe Hare, coyote, and some sort of small rodent. Seeing the deer tracks made me realize I hadn’t seen any deer at any of the Stony Swamp trails all winter. As I was pondering this, I realized that two deer were lurking in the field right at the edge of the woods. Here’s an atmospheric shot of the deer showing the habitat (click to enlarge):

White-tailed Deer

White-tailed Deer

Here’s a zoomed in shot:

White-tailed Deer

White-tailed Deer

Eventually the deer turned around and walked into the woods, leaving me alone except for the calls of a few chickadees.

I, too, turned around, and continued my walk along the outer loop of the trail. The chickadees were hungry for food, and when a Blue Jay flew in to get a better look, I threw some peanuts onto the snow and quickly backed away. It didn’t take the Blue Jay long to swoop down and gobble down as many peanuts as possible. I crossed the marsh at the back and the open alvar without seeing much of interest, although the various tracks in the snow were fun to examine. When I re-entered the woods the chickadees clustered around me again, so I spent some time feeding them. A Red-breasted Nuthatch was ambling along a tree trunk nearby, but didn’t seem interested. I turned slightly to extend my hand toward it, and that’s when I heard the flurry of wing feathers coming from the tree next to me. A Ruffed Grouse had been perching in the tree right behind me, so well camouflaged I didn’t even see it; I only caught a glimpse of it as it flew deeper into the woods. This is only the second Ruffed Grouse I’ve recorded at Jack Pine Trail since I started using eBird in 2010, and as I had seen one only five months ago in September, I’m hoping that this bodes well for this species which has suffered a noticeable population decline since I started birding in 2006.

I returned to the feeder, but there were fewer birds feeding than before. I continued down the trail, hoping to find a Snowshoe Hare, and spotted an American Tree Sparrow and a few Dark-eyed Juncos feeding on the path instead.

Dark-eyed Junco

Dark-eyed Junco

The red squirrels gave me quite a bit of amusement, too. At one point I had three of them forming a triangle at my feet, each feeding on its own pile of seeds while making various angry clucking noises at each other. I would have loved to have shot some video of this rather endearing scene, but I was afraid that if I moved I would disturb them, and the urge to chase the competition off would overcome the uneasy peace they shared as each attended to its own pile of food.

This squirrel didn’t have to worry about competition as it feasted on the seeds I had left for the chickadees.

American Red Squirrel

American Red Squirrel

The trail was getting busy by that time, so I decided to find a spot with less people: the Trail Road landfill. I found one vantage point where I could see into the large garbage pit, though the only birds I saw were starlings and crows – hundreds of them. They kept flushing into the air, and although I searched the flock, I couldn’t see any gulls or Red-tailed Hawks. I started driving away and was about to give up on the idea of finding any gulls when a Herring Gull flew over. I headed over to the large quarry pond next, and found almost dozen gulls roosting on the ice – 12 Great Black-backed Gulls (including one juvenile) and 10 Herring Gulls were huddled together in the center of the pond.

A Red-tailed Hawk flew west across Moodie Drive, likely the same one I picked up a few minutes later hovering above a field on Twin Elm. I was hoping to find some Snow Buntings and wasn’t disappointed – five flushed from the side of the road and landed on a fence. I wasn’t expecting to see anything else, but I came across another flock of birds picking up grit on the side of the road a short distance away. They weren’t Snow Buntings – they were Horned Larks, and a few were singing!

Horned Lark

Horned Lark

The Horned Larks and the Ruffed Grouse were both new for my year list; in fact, they are the first birds I’ve added to my list all month. February is generally a slow month for birding as the birds haven’t yet begun to leave their winter territories. Consequently, I usually don’t add very many birds to my year list during the second month of the year, and the ones I do tend to add are ones that have been around all winter, just not in the places I’ve been looking. While some Horned Larks do begin migrating north toward the end of February, a quick look at eBird shows that a small flock has been in the area all winter.

Horned Lark

Horned Lark

Still, the fact that several birds are now singing – including Northern Cardinal, House Finches and now Horned Larks – indicates that they are starting to become territorial, perhaps thinking ahead to spring and the breeding season to come.

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