Predators Close to Home

Snowy Owl

Snowy Owl

Those in my friend and birding circles know I have been dealing with serious health issues since last fall…serious enough to have to take a medical leave of absence from work, and leave me feeling unwell enough to get outside birding for much of that time. The timing could not have been worse as the Omicron variant hit our region in late December and peaked in late January, its insane transmission rate leaving me feeling vulnerable every time I had to leave the house. I stayed home except to go to a medical appointments, despite many offers from friends to go birding, as I couldn’t risk catching COVID while my health was still fragile. However, things are improving on both fronts: the Omicron wave is receding, and I had surgery five weeks ago, and am slowly regaining my strength and mobility. If ever there was a time to be out of commission, this is it: winter is my least favourite season, with its bitterly cold days, icy trails, and lack of flowers and insects. Winter is more a time for chasing than exploring, and while we’ve had a couple of great rarities turn up, I was in no condition to go after them myself.

My year list is looking rather pathetic compared to last year, with only 27 species as of March 6th compared to 50 by the same date last year. I’ve only been out birding twice so far this year, on New Year’s Day with a short walk at the Eagleson ponds, and on February 21st, when a friend invited me to do some car birding south of Fallowfield Road; all other sightings have been from my window at home, or on my way to appointments. At the ponds there was enough open water to hold some mallards (but no geese), and I found only nine species, including a flock of 15 Dark-eyed Juncos (my fall birds vanished from my backyard in December), a few American Tree Sparrows, and a raven.

Janet picked me up mid-morning on February 21st. Our primary goal was to look for larks, buntings and hopefully a Lapland Longspur or two, and we found a couple of flocks worth checking out. One contained a Horned Lark among the large number of Snow Buntings, and the other flock didn’t land long enough – or close enough – for us to see if there were any longspurs. We had a great raptor day, however, with the celebrity Snowy Owl at its usual spot near Akins Road, two Red-tailed Hawks at the Trail Road Landfill, and a Cooper’s Hawk at a feeder on Twin Elm.

Snowy Owl

Snowy Owl

Cooper’s Hawks are the hawks most likely to be seen at backyard feeders, and we initially hadn’t seen the juvenile perched in a huge willow tree while we were scanning the feeders for songbirds. One has been hanging around my own neighbourhood this winter, although I didn’t find out until recently that it was spending its time in a yard across the street, which has also been hosting the neighbourhood juncos and House Sparrows. The Twin Elm feeders were quiet, however, and then I noticed this juvenile in the tree behind the yard:

Cooper's Hawk (juvenile)

Cooper’s Hawk (juvenile)

Now that the temperature is getting closer to zero I’ve started going for walks outside again. On my walk on Friday I heard a couple of House Sparrows chirping in the hedge across the street, so I started pishing at them. To my surprise a large bird – a bit bigger and a lot thicker than a Mourning Dove – flew over the hedge right at me then swooped up and landed in the tree next to me! It was another juvenile accipiter, and at first I thought it was a female Sharp-shinned based on its size (females are larger than males). Then I saw the neat streaking on the chest, ending at a nearly-white belly, and the wide white band across the tail and realized it was another Cooper’s Hawk!

Cooper's Hawk (juvenile)

Cooper’s Hawk (juvenile)

It sat and looked at me as I continued pishing, which is unusual as most hawks fly off as soon as they see me watching them. I started squeaking to keep its attention while I grabbed a few shots, and about a minute later it flew into a tree across the road. It was facing the road, so I walked a little closer (keeping to my side of the street) and grabbed a quick shot of the underside:

Cooper's Hawk (juvenile)

Cooper’s Hawk (juvenile)

The following day I decided I was ready for my first drive since my surgery, now that my strength and range of motion were almost back to normal. I decided to check out the crabapple trees at Bluegrass Park to look for Pine Grosbeaks and other fructivores, and this turned out to be a great decision as I heard the Pine Grosbeaks long before I saw them. These large, boreal finches leave their breeding grounds up north in winters when their food supply is low. A large number of grosbeaks stopped over in Ottawa last year, and it was exciting to see them again this year as they do not irrupt south as often as Common Redpolls (which I’ve also seen from my own yard this winter). When I reached the tree I counted 11 individuals altogether, including two adult males!

Pine Grosbeak (female or immature male)

Pine Grosbeak (female or immature male)

Adult males are pink, while females and immature males are both gray with golden-yellow feathers on the head, chest, and tail. However, the amount of colour can vary among both sexes; some females have no yellow on the chest, and some adult males may have much more gray than pink on the back or belly.

Pine Grosbeak (adult male)

Pine Grosbeak (adult male)

Some immature males may show more orange in their feathers, or have areas with red feathers coming through the orange. I did not notice any such immatures among this flock, however, the light was bad and many birds were feeding in the interior of the tree where it was dark.

Pine Grosbeak (adult male)

Pine Grosbeak (adult male)

Other birds present included a pair of cardinals, a Dark-eyed Junco, a robin, and several starlings. At one point a Merlin flew over, causing the birds to scatter, but most of the grosbeaks stayed put. In the background I heard the lovely song of a House Finch.

I don’t know why I turned around when I did, but when I looked back toward the trail beneath the hydro towers I saw a large coyote trot along the path! I turned my camera on, but by the time I focused on the animal it was already moving into the line of shrubs that backs up against the fences.

Eastern Coyote

Coyote

Whenever the subject of coyotes comes up here in Ottawa, so inevitably does the name “coywolf”. People talk about the coywolf as if it were some new genetic hybrid that recently showed up in our region, distinct from a pure coyote population that was already here. However, recent DNA tests show that all coyotes in the east are a mixture of coyote, wolf and, surprisingly, dog. In our area (the Northeast), at least 60% and as much as 84% of “coyote” DNA comes from coyote, with a small amount of wolf (8%-25%) and an even smaller amount of dog (8%-11%) mixed in. However, in coyotes in Virginia, the amount of dog DNA is greater than the amount of wolf DNA! The hybridization events that led to this interesting mixture took place long ago: mating with wolves occurred about 100 years ago, while mating with dogs occurred in prehistoric times, with additional hybridization occurring about 50 years ago. So far none of the animals tested have proven to be a pure coyote-wolf hybrid, which is why the name “coywolf” – although cool – is a bit of a misnomer.

Regardless of the type of DNA coiled within its cells’ nuclei, it was a great sighting, although I was a bit uneasy to see it so close to the houses. Still, coyotes are in almost every natural green space in the city, using hydro corridors such as these to move around. As long as they show a healthy amount of fear when encountering a human there is no need to worry about confrontation; they are as unhappy to come across humans as most humans are to come across coyotes, and would prefer not to come into contact with us at all. This is why it’s a good idea, if you live next to or often visit any green spaces, to keep your dogs on a leash, and small pets and children indoors unless supervised. There are more coyotes in the city than most people realize, and unless one is behaving strangely or shows no fear of humans, seeing one is not a cause for alarm….especially if you’re a naturalist like me, who only sees them a couple of times each year!

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