Winter Freeze-up

Green-winged Teal

After about a week of temperatures in the double digits, on November 20th the temperature plummeted. The past week has been cold, with most days not even reaching the freezing mark. Worse, a heavy snowfall on November 20th and 21st dumped more than 10 cm on Ottawa; so even though a few trees and shrubs were still sporting green leaves, it looks like winter has begun a full month early, given that the solstice falls on December 21st this year. Even going by meteorological seasons, which uses December 1st as the start of winter, and March 1st as the beginning of spring, winter is still more than a week early. Maybe we’ll get lucky and find ourselves back in the plus-double digits on February 20th, a full month before the vernal equinox.

I didn’t have the car on Saturday, but as it wasn’t too cold out I decided to walk over to the storm water ponds. I wasn’t expecting to see much there, though I was hoping there would still be plenty of geese around. The eBird hotspot list now stands at 100 species, and given the low likelihood of finding a new songbird species this time of year to add to that list, I figured I would keep checking the ponds until freeze-up in the hope of finding a new waterfowl species. I guessed that either American Wigeon or Northern Shoveler would be the newest addition to the list, though other possibilities include Lesser Scaup, Bufflehead, or Redhead, all of which have been seen on the smaller ponds at Andrew Haydon Park. I actually did see a scaup species at the ponds on one of my early visits in 2006, but I can no longer find the original photos and have no way of confirming the exact date of the sighting. I did find the photo link from my previous blog, though (forgive the quality, it was taken with my first Sony Cybershot which only had a 3x zoom):

Mystery bird

I was happy to see that there were still lots of geese on the pond (at least a couple thousand), but I was surprised to find that most of the southern ponds were frozen. Only the center of the middle pond was open, including a large part of the channel heading toward Emerald Meadows Drive, and most of the geese were standing on the ice. I was also surprised to see a Great Blue Heron standing on one of the rocks in the open water, hunting for fish.

At first I saw only geese and mallards, so I decided to check out the southern pond next. Again only a large portion of the center was open, and geese crowded into the open water and along the edges. The small L-shaped retention pond was also open, and I stopped to look at the ducks. A smaller female with a pale brown head caught my attention; it was a Northern Pintail, the 101st species at this pond according to eBird!

Northern Pintail

Northern Pintail

For some reason I didn’t consider Northern Pintail among the likely ducks to show up here, though I should have; these ducks are “cold-weather” migrants, arriving in mid-March once the spring flooding begins, and departing in late November. Some are even found here occasionally in the winter, such as the one I found at Billings Bridge in January 2014.

Northern Pintail

Northern Pintail

I spent a long time trying to get some photos of her, but she refused to swim anywhere near me. She swam from end to end a couple of times, and then clambered up the steep slope a few times to nibble on the vegetation there. Once she climbed up the slope only to have a female mallard on the shore lunge at her with an open bill; the pintail quickly took to the water and swam off.

Northern Pintail

Northern Pintail

After about 15 minutes I left to check out the northern ponds. I found three Common Mergansers and three Hooded Mergansers, as well as a number of songbirds in the stand of trees south of Emerald Meadows Drive. These included two Blue Jays, a female cardinal, two American Robins, at least a dozen House Finches, two American Tree Sparrows, and about six Dark-eyed Juncos. After checking out the northern-most ponds (both of which were still completely open – these are usually the last to freeze up) and finding nothing but Canada Geese and mallards, I turned around to check out the large center pond once more. I found the Hooded Mergansers again, and then spotted another duck that caught my attention – a female Northern Pintail! I wasn’t sure if the birds from the L-shaped pond had moved into the larger one, so I hurried back over there to check. The female pintail was still there, which meant there were two individuals present! I spent some time watching her swim around before I noticed a “gang” of geese swimming toward the middle of the pond. To my surprise there was a Cackling Goose among them!

Cackling Goose

Cackling Goose

This brought the total number of waterfowl species up to seven, and the total number of species up to 22 – a pretty good number for the end of November!

The following day Deb and I went birding at Mud Lake. The pond here had also started to freeze up, with only a large open section near the small point on the northern shore. We spent some time scanning the ducks, and although the Wood Ducks had all departed, we were surprised to find a male American Wigeon swimming as far out as possible next to the edge of the ice and a female Green-winged Teal! The teal was much closer to the shore, hanging out with the mallards and black ducks.

Green-winged Teal

Green-winged Teal

While we were photographing her she actually swam closer, probing in the muck along the shoreline.

Green-winged Teal

Green-winged Teal

We headed up onto the ridge after that where we found the usual House Finches, goldfinches, White-breasted Nuthatches, and chickadees. Lots of juncos were around, skulking in the shrubs and foraging on the ground. We were happy to find one White-throated Sparrow among them. We counted four Downy Woodpeckers, and when I stuck out my hand with some food on it, a male flew in and grabbed a peanut. I can’t remember when I first saw the tame woodpecker pair; they’ve been here a long time now.

After that we headed out behind the filtration plant to check out the bay. The best birds there were three Hooded Mergansers, two Bufflehead and a single Common Loon. In the woods we heard two Brown Creepers, the only new songbird to be added to our list.

Although we counted 21 birds on our outing, only half of those were songbirds – the other half included Ring-billed Gulls, the Downy Woodpeckers, and 8 species of waterfowl. Most of the migratory songbirds have moved on now, and winter residents such as the Dark-eyed Junco have moved in. Waterfowl will linger right up until the ponds and rivers freeze up completely sometime in the next few weeks, bringing migration to an end for another season.

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