This November has witnessed one of the most dramatic battles between the seasons I have ever seen: the battle between Winter and Summer. Autumn has been watching from the sidelines as first Summer forced its way back onto the stage with temperatures ranging from 19°C to 23°C between November 5th and November 11th; birds were singing and butterflies were flying again on Remembrance Day. Winter fought back on November 18th with the first sub-zero day of the season and a high of -3°C, but Summer regained the upper hand when the thermometer rose to 15°C two days later. Winter’s next strategy involved dumping almost 8 cm of snow on our region on November 22nd, with another 2 cm two days later. We haven’t seen this much snow on the ground since March 9th, and normally don’t get this much until about December 11th. Summer has since retaliated by raising temperatures to almost 5°C the past two days, and 7°C today. The snow is melting, and although it looks like Summer is finally weakening, I’m dreading to see what Winter has in store next. Fortunately it looks as though Autumn has had enough of these two fighting over its territory, and has sent them both packing as temperatures are supposed remain in the single digits next week with more rain than snow in the forecast.
This weekend has felt more like spring with wet, melting snow everywhere and puddles forming along the trails. A light rain was falling as I headed out yesterday; I like to get out as early as I can because the trail parking lots are still filling up before 10 am, and I knew the rain wasn’t going to last. I wanted to check the river for ducks and gulls, but on a whim I decided to stop in at Sarsaparilla Trail first. This proved to be a good decision as I found two White-winged Crossbills there for my year list! I heard the “ch-ch” calls coming from the top of a spruce tree, similar to that of a Common Redpoll, but drier and less musical. These were interspersed with random, more musical “meep-meep” calls. I saw one bird fly up to the top of a spruce tree, and when I got my binoculars on it I could see a large, stocky finch with white wing-bars. I’ve been hoping to cross paths with these finches for a while now, and their presence completely made up for the lack of waterfowl on the frozen pond.
When I got to Andrew Haydon Park the gates were closed, so I had to park at Dick Bell instead. There were only about 40 geese on the river when I arrived, along with one Lesser Scaup, two Bufflehead, and four Hooded Mergansers. The ponds were still frozen, but a good assortment of gulls were resting in the middle of the western pond. To my surprise, a large juvenile white-winged gull was prominent among all the other adult gulls!
There are two white-winged gull species common in our region over the winter months: the Glaucous Gull and the Iceland Gull. Both breed in the Arctic and spend the winter in the US and southern Canada along large bodies of water with other gulls. Juveniles of both species are white with varying degrees of fine brown markings that give them a dingy appearance from a distance. Both lack the black wing-tips of the local Ring-billed and Herring Gulls. However, while the Glaucous Gull has a pink bill with a black tip, the Iceland Gull has an entirely black bill. Both species have pink legs, which helps to distinguish them from the yellow-legged Ring-billed Gulls.
Adult Iceland and Glaucous Gulls look similar to Herring Gulls with a gray mantle and white underparts. However, the Glaucous Gull is much paler in colour and has entirely white wing-tips, while the Iceland Gull has a slightly darker mantle and its wing-tips have markings that range from pale gray to black. The Iceland Gull is smaller than the Glaucous and Herring Gull but slightly larger than the Ring-billed Gull (the common parking lot or schoolyard gull in our region).
There were about 13 Ring-billed Gulls and two adult Herring Gulls on the ice when I arrived. Herring Gulls also have pink legs, and are much larger than Ring-billed Gulls. Sometimes when confronted with a large number of gulls standing on the ice or lawn in front of you, the best way to check for other species is to look for the pink legs among a sea of yellow!
The Iceland Gull was my second new year bird of the day (my Ottawa list for 2020 now stands at 214 species) and the definite highlight of my visit. However, the rest of my visit was just as productive. I found three Common Goldeneye swimming up the eastern creek, a Brown Creeper in the trees nearby, and heard three Common Redpolls and one Pine Grosbeak flying over. I was also thrilled to see an adult Bald Eagle flying west along the river fairly close to shore – it’s not often I see these beauties, and often they are much further out.
Today I was in the mood to look for more winter finches, so I headed to Old Quarry Trail where I knew a small flock of Pine Grosbeaks have been feeding on the crabapple trees in the hydro cut (at least I think they are crabapple tees, feel free to correct me if I’m wrong). These are one of my favourite winter finches, as they are large, colorful, and have soft, pretty calls. In addition, they are confiding (that is, they are not easily spooked and often allow close approach), and tend to spend long periods of time feeding in the same tree, which makes them excellent subjects for photography. I wasn’t able to get any photos the last time I had seen them here, and with the sun shining brightly I hoped to find some of each sex to photograph.
I was lucky, as the first bird I heard when I got out of the car was a Pine Grosbeak calling from the buckthorn shrubs right next to the parking lot. Three more were perched in the bare tree next to the picnic tables. Not long after I saw a few more flying south toward the hydro cut. I followed, and found a pair feeding on the crabapples.
These finches breed up north in the boreal forest where they feed on a variety of plants including the buds, seeds, and fruits of spruce, pine, juniper, birch, mountain ash, maple, box elder, crabapple, blackberry, ragweed, and burdock. When these crops – particularly mountain ash berries and conifer seeds – are poor on their breeding grounds, Pine Grosbeaks migrate south into southern Ontario, Quebec, New York, and other northern states. Such long-distance movements, called irruptions, are the result of food availability rather than seasonal changes in daylight, and do not occur every year. Blue Jays, Red-breasted Nuthatches, Bohemian Waxwings and northern owls such as Snowy Owls, Great Gray Owls, and Northern Hawk Owls also irrupt periodically.
Researchers are able to predict the irruption of finches, jays, nuthatches and waxwings by surveying the cone crop across the boreal forest each summer. Each September, birders eagerly await the compilation of these surveys with the release of the annual Winter Finch Forecast, which was first created and disseminated by Ron Pittaway in 1999. When Ron retired earlier this year, birders were relived to heard that the forecast would be continued by Tyler Hoar, one of Ron’s collaborators on the winter finch forecast.
Interestingly, while the 2020 Winter Finch Forecast predicted that it would be flight year for many species, it did not include the Pine Grosbeak among them. This is because the mountain ash crop ranges from poor to bumper across the boreal forest, with enough food available overall to keep most birds in the north. However, small movements of birds moving from areas with a poor crop into areas rich with food might bring them south of the boreal forest into urban areas like Ottawa, which has a plentiful supply of ornamental crabapple and mountain ash trees to attract these wandering finches. Pine Grosbeaks also visit feeders, preferring black oil sunflowers seeds, so the abundant feeders in the city give them another reason to stick around for the winter.
I spent about 20 minutes in the area, watching and waiting for the grosbeaks to come out into the sunlight instead of hiding within the shadowy interior of the tree. Several robins – almost two dozen – also flew into the area, as did a dozen Cedar Waxwings. I was hoping to find some Bohemian Waxwings among the flock but observed none.
I am not sure how many Pine Grosbeaks are feeding in this area in total, as I heard them flying over other parts of the trail as well. In addition, all the ones I have seen have been females or immature males – I haven’t seen a bright pink adult male yet. Their soft, sweet “too-too” calls, reminiscent of a Lesser Yellowlegs, are a familiar sound throughout the trail system. I listened for other winter finches, and heard a couple of flocks of Common Redpolls as well as a single Evening Grosbeak. I was hoping to catch up with more crossbills but heard none. Interestingly, I thought I heard Pine Siskins twice but as each call was heard once, with distracting background noise, I didn’t count them on my eBird checklist. The Winter Finch Forecast noted that siskins and White-winged Crossbills in Western Canada will likely stay in the west due to the excellent spruce crops there. Those in the east were predicted to move south in search of food, and it’s been an excellent fall for hearing Pine Siskins. Unlike the other finches, White-winged Crossbills and (often) Pine Siskins prefer to move east or west rather than south in search of cone crops.
While the seasons continue to battle for supremacy on the global stage, the changes in weather and food availability continue to bring birds that live much further north into our region. As such, November and early December are often the most exciting months of fall migration as late-lingering birds move south and vagrants from other areas migrate in the wrong direction. It’s great to see the northern gulls back in town, and hopefully many of these boreal finches will stay the winter – their cheerful calls and colourful plumage do much to brighten the long, bleak days of winter.