The Remnants of Winter

Horned Lark

Winter has taken its sweet time in leaving. We’re now a week past the Spring Equinox and the temperature has still been below normal. Even worse, last Wednesday the temperature dipped to -17°C (-28°C with the windchill when we woke up) and then Ottawa received another 10cm of heavy, wet snow on Friday. Once again all the lawns were covered beneath a heavy blanket of snow and the open water in the ponds and rivers began to freeze, reversing all the progress we’ve made to date. I suspect either Mother Nature is being held hostage somewhere against her will, or else she is hiding out in the Mexican Riviera, too afraid to come back to Canada because of the way Old Man Winter has taken over the country. Old Man Winter is now talking about building a wall to keep her out; the snow we received on Friday will become his building materials.

Despite the lingering winter weather, yesterday the temperature climbed to 3°C and today we reached 0°C – with freezing rain in the forecast for tonight. I managed to get out birding for a bit yesterday and today, though I didn’t find any new spring migrants. Instead, I found some late winter lingerers and some migrants that have been here for some time.

I started my day yesterday with a walk at Sarsaparilla Trail, wanting to check the condition of the pond and see what birds had returned. The ponds were still frozen; the only two Canada Geese I saw were flying over. I saw several Red-winged Blackbirds, a Pileated Woodpecker, and heard one robin, but the usual chickadees and nuthatches were absent – only one chickadee came to my hand and I only saw or heard about five altogether. My best find there, however, was a group of Pine Siskins. I heard them in the parking lot almost as soon as I got out of the car and heard them in the woods multiple times on my walk. At one point I saw three fly over while a fourth one chattered in the trees behind them. This was the first time I’d heard or seen them in Ottawa this year.

I quite enjoyed the walk in the snow-laden woods, so I headed over to the Beaver Trail next. I heard a pair of Snow Buntings flying over, and found several Red-winged Blackbirds at the beaver pond at the back. My best find there was a single Bohemian Waxwing trilling softly to itself at the top of an ash tree. I’ve been looking for these birds since the beginning of the year, with no success. Although it may not be a spring migrant, it was a year bird, and one I am always happy to come across in my travels.

As I was leaving the trail I heard a familiar song coming from the shrubs beneath the hydro towers and found an American Tree Sparrow. The Beaver Trail is normally a good spot to see these birds in the winter, although I usually find them feeding on seeds near the parking lot or foraging on the ground near the observation platform by the beaver pond. I was surprised to find only one here.

American Tree Sparrow

My last stop of the day was the Eagleson storm water ponds. I was happy to hear several birds in song, including a single Song Sparrow, a couple of House Finches and juncos, a Common Grackle, and a Mourning Dove. I tried to track down the Song Sparrow and grackle for a photo but wasn’t able to find them out in the open.

Mourning Dove

Several robins were flying back and forth between the small woodlot on the eastern side of the channel and the sumac stand on the peninsula. I figured at least 20 were in the vicinty, though it was hard to keep track of them all. A Bohemian Waxwing landed in the trees nearby but didn’t stay long. With all the crabapples still around the neighbourhood, I’m surprised I haven’t seen any flocks of Bohemians; perhaps this one is the vanguard for the larger flocks.

The kingfisher was perching on a fence post in its usual spot. However, my best birds were a male Common Merganser seen flying overhead and three Hooded Mergansers in the circular retention pond. Two males and a female have been seen off and on there since February 26th; on March 12th I saw four Hoodies, and the day after someone counted nine. I’m not sure where they disappear to during the cold snaps, but they keep coming back.

Hooded Merganser

After I got home from my outing yesterday I finished shoveling the driveway. My front-yard chipmunk has emerged from hibernation; he ran into the garage when he saw me in the driveway and I had to lure him out with peanuts. Fortunately he knows me well enough to come running when I throw food at him! I also saw a huge flock of Snow Buntings while shoveling; I estimated about 80-100 birds in the flock, though given my habit of underestimating birds in a flock there could have been 150. They were fairly low, too.

This morning I returned to the storm water ponds to see if I could get some better photos of the Hooded Mergansers with the sun shining. They were gone, but I did manage to photograph a grackle this time:

Common Grackle

I was also surprised to see a male and female Common Merganser in the channel near Emerald Meadows Drive. Obviously the male I saw yesterday didn’t fly too far, and brought a mate back with him! Although not a new bird for my year list, seeing them here does mean that the birds are getting restless and moving around. There were also more geese around today (though fewer mallards); I estimate about 600 in various patches of open water from the northern-most pond to the one nest to Hope Side Road.

Common Mergansers

I drove over to the Trail Road Landfill and Moodie Drive quarry to see if I could pick up some gulls, hawks, or blackbirds, but a sharp wind had picked up and I couldn’t keep the scope steady enough to view the distant gulls on the ice. I headed home after that, cutting across Rushmore Road to Eagleson, and stopped when I startled a group of Snow Buntings on a snow bank. They landed in a tree, and I crept closer until I could get a photo.

Snow Bunting

A Horned Lark was sitting on the shoulder on the opposite side of the road, so I took some pictures of her, too. She seemed quite docile; when a car passed, she quickly came back to the side of the road. As I was shooting into the sun, I took a chance and got out of the car so I could photograph her from the same side of the road. She barely moved, and when I had taken enough photos I got back into the car.

Horned Lark

That’s when the male flew in with a couple of sweet-sounding “tsee-tsip” call notes, identifiable by the deep black bands on his face and throat and pointy little “horns”. He landed on a corn stalk and sang a few times, a pretty tinkling song that always signals the end of winter to me. Once again I was shooting into the sun, but he posed so prettily on a corn stalk that I rolled down the window and took a few more pictures. It’s not often I can get close enough to these birds to get some decent shots, and I was happy with my time observing them.

Horned Lark

Although there was no major influx of spring migrants this weekend, my weekend birding saw a mixture of over-wintering species and early spring migrants that were fooled by the nice weather in February. I did add one new bird to my year list (the Bohemian Waxwing) and one new bird to my Ottawa year list (the Pine Siskin). All of the birds seem eager for spring, as evidenced by all the singing I’ve heard lately. Crows are carrying nesting material, ducks are pairing up, and the gulls and geese are back in big numbers. Hopefully it won’t be long until winter leaves for goo, and more spring migrants begin to arrive.

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