The Winter Doldrums

Northern Pintail

The winter doldrums hit early, and hit hard. After a late start to winter, there were two feet of snow on the ground by Christmas, and by New Year’s Day we were in the grip of a week-long deep freeze with temperatures rising only as high as -17°C during the day – most of the time we were right around -20°C. From then on we suffered the usual bitter cold/messy thaw/winter storm cycle that characterizes our Ottawa winter throughout January and February. While a good number of Snowy Owls were present in the region, there were no winter finches, no Bohemian Waxwings, no northern woodpeckers, and no unusual owls or raptors (i.e. Boreal Owl, Gyrfalcon) to add excitement to the birding scene. Less and less I found a reason to go out, even on those weekends when it wasn’t snowing/raining or bitterly cold, and I lost the motivation to keep a winter list or work on my year list – anything that’s in the first two months of 2018 will still be around when the weather warms up in April.

Still, being cooped up in the house all day isn’t my idea of fun, and I feel better when I’m able to get out for a good long walk, so on those occasions when the weather did cooperate or I couldn’t stand being cooped up inside any longer I managed to get out and find a few birds. One of the last good birds of the year before the cold spell was this Red-tailed Hawk soaring over Dick Bell Park. I was running some errands in the area and saw it fly by, then land in a tree near the Yacht Club building! I was able to drive into the parking lot, get out and get a photo before it flew off again.

Red-tailed Hawk

January 1st dawned cold and sunny: -24°C according to the car! Still, I couldn’t NOT get a start on my year list on new year’s day, so I hit my usual places (Jack Pine Trail, the fields south of Fallowfield, and the frozen ponds at Eagleson) and ended up with a measly 14 species, the best of which were a flock of about 60 Snow Buntings and 8 Horned Larks along Steeple Hill Road. All the ponds were frozen at the ponds near my place, so I didn’t get any waterfowl, and it was too cold to spend much time outdoors looking.

The Old Quarry Trail was surprisingly productive this winter. I got my first robin of the year here on January 20th and my first White-throated Sparrow (a complete surprise) on February 10th. When I put some seed on a post two of them came out and fed, along with a few juncos and chickadees, a Downy Woodpecker, a Red-breasted Nuthatch and two cardinals.

White-throated Sparrow

The male Northern Cardinal is a gorgeous sight in the winter, and I couldn’t resist photographing one as he got some food.

Northern Cardinal

The following day I headed over to the Iber Road pond in Stittsville to follow up on a report of a female Northern Pintail overwintering there. This was one of the few good birds still hanging around in my area, and as it wasn’t too cold that day I decided to head over. There were about 500 mallards, 30 black ducks, one hybrid, and three Canada Geese with the pintail. Try as I might, I couldn’t pick out any other species.

Northern Pintail

Later, when I went home, I saw the local Merlin land in the tree across the street from my house and stay there for about five minutes – my 30th species of the year.

I got my first Snowy Owl of the year on Rushmore Road on February 18th – an area I usually avoid now due to all the photographers stalking the owls there. However, I usually do drive those roads on my to or from the Trail Road dump, and found a few Snow Buntings and Horned Larks there as well. To my surprise I got a second Snowy Owl later that month right at the Eagleson Ponds, which I’ve been checking periodically in the hope of finding open water and new waterfowl moving in. Although water was opening up in the smaller ponds, the larger ones were still frozen, and a trio of crows circling over a rock and squawking at it drew my attention, especially when one landed right next to the rock and began cawing. Then I saw the rock turn its head and realized it was a heavily barred Snowy Owl! It paid no attention to the crows, and eventually they flew off. I wondered how many times I’d passed a distant rock not realizing it was an owl!

Snowy Owl

I checked the other ponds, but no ducks had come back yet. Still, a Canada Goose flying over was a sign of hope, and in the circular retention pond I found a muskrat feeding on the ice! As I watched, it dived into the water, came up with a stalk of leafy green vegetation, and proceeded to eat it on the ice. I don’t often see muskrats here, so this was a great sighting!

Muskrat

On February 25th I returned and was happy to find large groups of ducks and geese at the ponds – the only reason for my visit was that I had seen a large flock of geese flying by my house. The temperature had been mostly above zero since Valentine’s Day, reaching 9°C by the 21st, and it seemed as though the warmer weather had brought the Canada Geese back. I heard a male House Finch and a male Northern Cardinal singing, two American Tree Sparrows were calling, and at least 30 geese were in the northern-most pond with another 20 or so flying over. Then I spotted a different goose, one that appeared smaller, grayer, and paler than the nearby Canada Geese. I wasn’t sure if it was a small subspecies of Canada Goose or a Cackling Goose, but as it swam closer I noticed the small, blocky head with the steep forehead and the short, slightly drooping bill that appears stubby. The photos I took confirmed that the white patch on its face had a slight indentation at the eye – all characteristics of a Cackling Goose! I have never had a Cackling Goose this early before, so I was thrilled with this find – I hadn’t even seen a Red-winged Blackbird yet, but migration had begun!

Cackling Goose

The Red-wings came later, on March 3rd, at the Old Quarry Trail. About seven were calling and singing in the marsh, and as usual, and it was a real joy to listen to their various chucks and whistles and “oka-reeeeeees!” I heard a Brown Creeper singing, as well as a robin, and when I tracked the robin down I found a flock of about seven, along with 20 Cedar Waxwings – another year bird. I watched them for a good 15 minutes as they dined on buckthorn berries and ate bits of snow clinging to the tree trunks. Their bright yellow bellies really cheered up the gloomy day.

Cedar Waxwing

Afterward I stopped in at the Eagleson Ponds, where I added six Ring-billed Gulls to my year list. Also present were about 125 Canada Geese and 14 mallards, but no new songbirds had returned.

Eagleson Ponds

The following day the number of geese had quadrupled to about 500 individuals. There were just under 50 mallards, and two Red-winged Blackbirds had returned. An accipiter blasted by at a distance, flying away from me, so I wasn’t able to tell what it was. Best of all, three Cackling Geese had returned with the Canada Geese. I first noticed them in the water near the edge of the ice; then they flew onto the lawn and began to feed. Normally I don’t see this geese until the fall, so a second sighting before spring had even arrived was significant!

Cackling Geese

By March 6th the temperature had dropped back down to zero, but the neighbourhood robins had returned and I heard one singing away on the house across the street. I heard my first Purple Finch of the year singing at Old Quarry Trail, and on March 17th I had my first Common Grackle of the year at the Eagleson ponds. The temperature had dropped again, and St. Patrick’s Day turned out to be the coldest day of the month at -7°C. Once again a Cackling Goose was present.

Cackling Goose

I drove up to the Hilda Road feeders, a place I don’t visit often, with a stop at Shirley’s Bay to see whether the river was still frozen here – it was. However, the stop at Hilda was worth it just to see two nearly white Snowshoe Hares feeding on the seeds and vegetables left there. I see these large hares in the brown summer pelage far more often than I do their pristine white winter one, so I was happy to watch them both for a few minutes.

Snowshoe Hare

At first the one on the ground was content to scrounge around on the ground, but then it decided it wanted to hop up onto the tray feeder and chased the other one away!

Snowshoe Hare

It’s sights like this, and the gradually warming temperatures, that make the winter doldrums of January and February bearable. Migration has already begun, and with spring just around the corner I’m beginning to look forward to the return of the Song Sparrows and Great Blue Herons and chipmunks and everything else that makes being outside so wonderful!

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2 thoughts on “The Winter Doldrums

  1. I started reading this thinking your were talking about the winter of 2018-2019. Then you got to February. I guess you’ve got a lot of catching up to do. LOL

    • Nope, this was last winter, although the weather has been equally horrible this year!
      I’m not so far behind now, only have March to July 2018 to catch up on. Losing my photo editor and having to get a new computer really slowed me down last summer.

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