Spring arrives early

Northern Pintail

Northern Pintail

I usually never believe the groundhogs when they predict an early spring. Regardless of whether they see their shadow, spring usually arrives right when it’s supposed to – between the second and third weeks of March. An “early” spring might arrive on St. Patrick’s Day rather than the solstice a couple of days later; however, the weather usually remains unsettled, with some snow and sub-zero temperatures still occurring at least a week or two later. The last two years were the exceptions, when spring didn’t arrive until the temperatures rose to above 0°C around April! In fact, the new trend seems to be one of seasons arriving later than usual – just look at how long it took winter to get here this year!

When the weather forecast predicted above-zero temperatures every day starting on Sunday, March 6th I was skeptical. We usually get one or two snowstorms in the first half of March, a last act of defiance on the part of Old Man Winter. We got our snow on March 1st, and then by Sunday the temperature rose to +3°C.

Saturday was still cold, but I was comfortable on my walk at Jack Pine Trail. I didn’t really expect to see any signs of spring, and indeed all I found were the usual winter residents. I stopped in at the Beaver Trail next, which was likewise quiet, but a female Pileated Woodpecker working on an old snag provided a bright spot of colour.

Pileated Woodpecker

Pileated Woodpecker

I did notice that all of the White-breasted Nuthatches were paired up – I counted eight individuals altogether. One male was particularly interested in the peanuts I was giving out, for he persistently followed me as I navigated the knee-deep snow to get closer to the Pileated Woodpecker. Every time I stopped he would land on a tree trunk close enough to touch, waiting until I gave him some food. I must have fed him a dozen peanuts while trying to photograph the woodpecker; although a female was ambling up the tree trunks nearby, she was much shyer and wouldn’t come near me.

From there I drove to Trail Road to look for gulls. I wasn’t actually expecting to see any loafing around inside the fence, so I was surprised when I saw some standing on the low rise just inside the gate. I was doubly surprised when I scanned them with my binoculars and realized that the one standing closest to the road was a juvenile Glaucous Gull – a year bird for me! The Glaucous Gull is one of the two “white-winged” species that pass through Ottawa in the fall and winter. Juveniles appear to be pure white, with a distinctive two-toned black and pink bill.

Glaucous Gull (immature)

Glaucous Gull (immature)

There were a handful of Great Black-backed Gulls among the Herring Gulls, including a single juvenile. I also saw two Red-tailed Hawks along Trail Road, including one perched in a tree right beside the road.

After leaving the dump I drove the loop from Trail Road to Barnsdale Road, and on Barnsdale I saw my first real sign of spring: a groundhog standing on the snowy bank! I can’t remember seeing a groundhog so early in the month or with still so much snow on the ground, but it was a very welcome sign of spring.

On my way home I spotted a couple of Horned Larks, a Snowy Owl, and a large flock of Snow Buntings; there were no signs of spring in the agricultural areas south of Kanata yet. However, when I checked the ponds near my place, I was excited to see six Canada Geese hanging out with six American Black Ducks and about 45 mallards. While the ducks have been present on the pond most of the winter, the geese were new arrivals – a sign that the birds are starting to move around!

Canada Geese

Canada Geese

On Sunday Deb and I met up at Mud Lake. Almost the first bird we saw was an adult Bald Eagle flying over Cassels Street, making for an excellent start to the day. Several Ring-billed Gulls were flying over Cassels Street as well – they were interested in some food a pair of crows had found on the street, but were too wary to land. Although I was expecting the Ring-billed Gulls to return with the milder weather later in the week, I didn’t expect to see them on the weekend, while the temperature was still mostly below zero. This was another sign of spring I’ve eagerly awaiting – could the Red-winged Blackbirds be far behind?

We walked over to the low area behind the ridge to check out the ducks. The overwintering pair of American Wigeon and male Northern Pintail had been photographed the day before, and we were hoping to find these ducks with the large flock of mallards hanging out on the river. A couple of photographers were standing in the middle of a large swath of corn on the ice, but no ducks were feeding; the overwintering Canada Goose that had previously showed no hesitation in walking up to me for handouts was sleeping. The photographers hadn’t seen the wigeon, but they pointed out the Northern Pintail swimming just offshore. The male was in full breeding plumage, with a chocolate brown head, a grayish body, a long, tapered tail, and a long graceful neck with a white stripe running up its length.

Northern Pintail

Northern Pintail

The Northern Pintail breeds farther north than any other dabbling duck. It is one of the first ducks to appear in the spring, with large groups of males arriving with the thousands of Canada geese that are attracted to the flooded farm fields in late March. Some individuals attempt to overwinter in our region to shorten the distance they have to travel to their breeding grounds; this winter was a good one to do so, as many areas of the Ottawa and Rideau Rivers remained open.

I threw some peanuts toward the edge of the ice to see if the ducks wanted to feed; several Mallards and an American Black Duck waddled out of the water to lap them up, and while the pintail seemed interested, he remained in the water.

Northern Pintail

Northern Pintail

This black duck spent some time preening; you can see the purplish-blue wing patch which lacks the white band found in mallards.

American Black Duck

American Black Duck

The Northern Pintail also took a moment to clean his feathers, showing off his green and yellow wing patch. Most dabbling ducks can be identified by these bright patches of colour alone, from the the powder blue of the Blue-winged Teal to the white of the Gadwall and the metallic green of the Green-winged Teal.

Northern Pintail

Northern Pintail

He was a beautiful duck, and I thoroughly enjoyed watching him. This was the first time I had ever been so close to a male in full breeding plumage, and Deb and I must have spent 20 minutes just watching and photographing him.

From there we went up to the ridge, but found very few birds. Someone had left some seed on the ground, and two Dark-eyed Juncos were coming in to feed:

Dark-eyed Junco

Dark-eyed Junco

Dark-eyed Junco

Dark-eyed Junco

We also found a male cardinal on the ridge that appeared quite approachable. Most cardinals are shy, fleeing as soon as a human starts walking toward them. This one kept an eye on us while perching in a tree, so I brought some food out and showed it to him, then set it down in a depression in the snow. I then slowly walked past the spot to a safe distance, and was delighted when he came down to feed. Mud Lake is the only place where I’ve seen cardinals approach humans for food, although they are nowhere as comfortable with humans as the nuthatches and chickadees are. While I wouldn’t call them tame, they certainly understand that humans are a source of food.

Northern Cardinal

Northern Cardinal

From there we took a walk through the western woods, but found little of interest. The best bird was a female Pileated Woodpecker working on a tree trunk close to the ground, and I managed this picture with her tongue sticking out.

Pileated Woodpecker

Pileated Woodpecker

After finishing our walk we decided to return to the river to see if the American Wigeons had joined the rest of the ducks. They hadn’t, but the pintail was still present, and still a delight to watch.

Northern Pintail

Northern Pintail

Northern Pintail

Northern Pintail

We headed over to Shirley’s Bay to look for Bohemian Waxwings (which we didn’t find) and then south to look for Horned Larks and Snow Buntings (which we did) but saw no other signs of spring.

However, the rest of the week was full of spring firsts. The grackles and robins returned to the neighbourhood on Tuesday, March 8th, and the Red-winged Blackbirds returned to the large marsh on Old Richmond Road the following day. Also on March 8th I saw my first skunk of the year ambling along a fenceline close to the Transitway near Tunney’s Pasture; it is not often I see these mammals out and about during the day, so seeing it was a pleasant surprise.

When I got home from work on Thursday, March 10th one of my backyard chipmunks was busy scrounging for seeds beneath the feeder – I opened my back door and called to it, but it isn’t the tame one that comes up to the door when I open it. Then this morning I awoke around 4:30 to the sound of something knocking my bird feeder around, and when I shone my flashlight outside, I saw not one, but two raccoons busy raiding it!

The weather, too, has been very mild, and the large snow banks are finally beginning to melt. Although there is still a lot of snow on the ground, the birds are returning, the mammals are awakening, and it is finally beginning to feel and sound like spring!

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