The Annual January Thaw

Great Horned Owl

For the past three days I’ve been listening to the sound of the steady drip of water from the snow melting on my roof. Almost every year we get a warm spell where the temperature climbs a few degrees above zero for a couple of days. While it is usually called the “January thaw”, sometimes it occurs in February, usually right in the middle of Winterlude. It is a welcome break from the bitterly cold days that remain well within the negative double digits. Not only does this weather make birding more pleasant – despite the heavy gray skies that usually accompany these warm spells – but birds and animals become more active, moving around instead of hunkering down against the cold.

I was hoping that this would happen on Saturday, and started my morning at the Trail Road landfill where I hoped to find at least a couple of different species of gull. Once again I found only Herring Gulls, and the only other birds present were two Red-tailed Hawks, crows and starlings. Even these seemed down in numbers.

A stop at Jack Pine Trail was similarly unproductive – I found no sparrows, no finches, no cardinals, and no crows. A Mourning Dove near the feeder was the only new species to show up since my visit on New Year’s Day.

My walk along Berry Side Road was much more interesting. I had gone there looking for the Eastern Bluebirds over-wintering into that area, and found an adult Bald Eagle instead! It soared over the road and disappeared to the west. It was a completely unexpected sight and redeemed my otherwise unproductive birding day.

A little further along I saw the brown pelt of an animal among the shrubs next to the road and automatically assumed something had been struck by a car. I continued walking, listening for finches and bluebirds, and slowly became aware of the sound of munching. I took another look at the “dead” animal on the side of the road, and was astonished to realize that it was a beaver, it was alive, and it was busy feeding on the woody stems of the shrubs!

Beaver

Beaver

I so rarely see beavers that it’s always a thrill to come across one unexpectedly. I don’t know where its lodge was, but undoubtedly the warm spell opened up the ice enough for it to go wondering in search of fresh food. Beavers do not hibernate, but remain active all winter. Most of their food comes from the large cache of woody branches placed in the water during the fall. Throughout the winter the beavers bring sticks from their underwater cache into the feeding chamber of the lodge where they dine on the bark. The roots and stems of aquatic plants growing below the ice, such as pond lilies and cattails, provide another source of food in the winter.

Beaver

Beaver

While this food is usually enough to sustain them throughout the winter, adult beavers often emerge from the confines of their lodge on mild days to feed on fresh woody stems along the shore. As they are slow and awkward on land, however, they run the risk of falling prey to wolves, coyotes, lynx, and wolverines on such food-gathering forays.

Beaver

Beaver

The beaver seemed content to remain where it was, so I kept to the opposite side of the road, and slowly walked along the shoulder until I had a better view of the beaver. It stopped eating and looked up at me when I moved, but as soon as I stopped and stood in one spot quietly it resumed feeding.

Beaver

Beaver

Beaver

Beaver

It was an amazing encounter, and I must have spent 20 minutes just watching him eat while taking as many pictures as I could.

I resumed my unsuccessful search for the Eastern Bluebirds north on Berry Side Road and along Fifth Line Road, and spotted a large dark shape perching in a tree near to the ramshackle old house. When I pulled over to take a look I was thrilled to identify it as an adult Bald Eagle! It was likely the same one I had seen from Berry Side Road, but even so I was still quite happy to find it perching.

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle

I drove up to Sixth Line Road and back home from there, but it wasn’t until I reached March Valley Road that I finally added another bird to my year list – about eight Wild Turkeys were flying over the DND fence and crossing the road. This is my 40th year bird for the OFNC circle.

At home, there was more activity in my yard than I’ve seen in a few weeks. A smallish bird landed in the tree across the street; it was the first robin I’ve seen on my street since the fall. When another smallish bird landed in the same tree a little while later, I thought it was the robin again, so I was quite surprised when I looked through the binoculars and saw an adult Northern Shrike instead! It stayed long enough for me to grab my coat and camera and head outside, but flew off across Grassy Plains when I walked out onto the road to get a better view. This is only the second shrike I’ve seen on my street, something that amazes me since I live in the suburbs and there are no open scrubby fields near my house. The first one showed up on March 10, 2008, in a different tree across the street, and stayed long enough for me to get a few photos. At that time there was a large cornfield south of my street, which is what I assumed had attracted the shrike to the neighbourhood to begin with. As that cornfield has been converted into dense suburban townhouses, I’m guessing that the shrike was just wandering in search of a better place to hunt, and found some activity at a bird feeder nearby.

Certainly my own bird feeders have seen little activity this past weekend. A couple of juncos and House Sparrows showed up at dawn at Saturday; for the rest of the day, only the squirrels have stopped by. At one point in the afternoon I looked out and saw something different – a Mourning Dove sitting on a fence. About an hour later, I went downstairs and looked out my back door and saw two of them, both sitting on my deck!

Mourning Dove

Mourning Dove

These are the first ones I’ve seen in my yard in well over a month, so I’m guessing the warmer weather brought them out of whatever cozy spot they’ve been hiding in. The two doves, the shrike, the robin, and a male Northern Cardinal singing in a tree across the street were all new for my 2017 yard list; I’m guessing that the warm spell has encouraged them to move around a bit.

The mild weather continued into Sunday, so I headed out early to the Arboretum and Fletcher Wildlife Garden to look for a couple of owls that are overwintering in the area. The Arboretum was quiet – I hoped to find some robins or waxwings feeding on the crabapple trees near the parking lot, but the trees were empty. A few chickadees, an American Goldfinch, and a White-breasted Nuthatch were detected mainly by sound. Other than a few crows overhead, there were few birds to be seen.

I started checking groups of evergreens, and it actually didn’t take me long to see the familiar shape of an owl hiding among the branches. I first saw it from the back, and when I quietly circled around to the front I was pleased to have an unobstructed view of Great Horned Owl! It was trying to doze, and opened one glaring yellow eye to assess me.

Great Horned Owl

Great Horned Owl

Apparently it decided I didn’t pose a threat, for a moment later it closed its eye.

Great Horned Owl

Great Horned Owl

The Great Horned Owls that live in eastern Ontario year-round are quite reddish in colour. This one has no rufous on its underside, and the facial disk is quite gray. A friend suggested that it has the genes of a “Snyder’s” Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus scalariventris), the subspecies that resides in northern Ontario above the Transcanada Highway and often wanders into southern Ontario in the winter. Regardless of which subspecies it was, it was still a great bird to see as Great Horned Owls seem to be declining in numbers in the Ottawa area as Barred Owls are increasing.

It was nice to have some relief from the bitter cold, and apparently I wasn’t the only one to think so. The birds seemed to enjoy it as well, even if the mild spell lasted only a few days before returning to the usual frigid conditions.

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