The end of December dragged for me, with a few remaining species needed for my year list that I just couldn’t catch up with (Barred Owl, Northern Shrike, American Three-toed Woodpecker) and a few I didn’t make the effort to see (Barrow’s Goldeneye, Tufted Titmouse). I ended the year with 185 species recorded in Ottawa (plus two others in Nova Scotia), which is lower than the previous two years – one good thing about the Covid 19 pandemic is being able to work from home and go birding in the morning rather than commuting! This number was higher than the 177 species seen in 2019, which makes it similar to pre-pandemic life (also known as “the before times”).
So when January 1st finally rolled around I was ready to get out and start my brand new year list off with a bang. Last year at this time I was still undergoing active medical treatment – including surgery late in the month – and was not feeling well enough to do much birding. I managed to do only one full birding outing in all of January 2022, a quick trip to the Eagleson Ponds on New Year’s Day. I ended my day with 9 species and the month with 17 – the rest of my January 2022 birds were seen from my window at home or on trips to the hospital. My goal for the first day of 2023 was to see more species than I had seen during the entire month of January 2022, and I succeeded.
It was a mild day. We had just received 15 cm of snow a few days earlier on top of the 25 cm of snow received in the Christmas Eve storm, but most of it had been washed away by a heavy rainfall on December 31st. I headed to Jack Pine Trail first for two reasons: there was still a great variety of species there despite the OFNC feeder being removed after the May 2022 derecho (the downed trees had destroyed the clearing in which it hung), and I was still searching for the American Three-toed Woodpecker that had been discovered there on December 12, 2022.
I was prepared for slushy or slippery trails but they weren’t as bad as I had feared. At 8:30 in the morning only a few cars were in the parking lot, and I didn’t meet anyone for a while. At first it was quiet, even in the feeder area where cardinals, American Tree Sparrows, Mourning Doves and woodpeckers had been hanging out in the branches of all the downed pine trees. I headed to the feeder at the back near the fourth loop, encountering both Red- and White-breasted Nuthatches, chickadees, Mourning Doves, and Blue Jays. At the back of the trail I saw a single robin and my first American Tree Sparrows of the day. I found no finches or raptors and heard the call of a single Hairy Woodpecker.
It wasn’t until I was returning to the parking lot that I heard a distinctive tapping at Waypoint 26C, where the main trail intersected with the middle loop (the one with the boardwalks). I stepped forward to try and pinpoint of the location of the tapping, and saw a black and white bird flutter down to a tangle of branches in front of me. The extensive black on the head made it one of the northern woodpeckers, and when I saw the black and white barring on the back I knew I had finally found the American Three-toed Woodpecker I had been looking for!
I was thrilled to finally count this bird for my Stony Swamp patch list, which now stands at 177 species, and my 5-mile radius patch list, which stands at 219 species. This has been a fantastic year for northern woodpeckers, with at least two American Three-toed Woodpeckers and one Black-backed Woodpecker in the Pine Grove area in the east end, and at least one (and probably two) Black-backed Woodpeckers in Stony Swamp. Most of these birds are female, lacking the bright yellow spot on the head of the males. After discovering one female Black-backed Woodpecker at Old Quarry Trail on November 3, 2022 and another (or perhaps the same one) at Jack Pine Trail on November 19, 2022 it had been my hope to discover a Three-toed Woodpecker in Stony Swamp as well; I couldn’t be disappointed when someone else found it before me, as my hunch had been proved correct.
She was very cooperative, and spent a lot of time on the same near-horizontal branch at knee-height. She didn’t seem to notice me at all even though I was only about 8 feet away. As a result, I got my best photos of this species to date despite the overcast day. This one is my favourite:
After leaving Jack Pine Trail I headed over to Sarsaparilla Trail to look for finches, Dark-eyed Junco, Pileated Woodpecker, and Brown Creeper. I got lucky with only one of those species – the creeper – but ended up with two great mammals for my year list. The first was an otter dashing across the ice along the far shore of the pond, which was mostly frozen over with pools of water sitting on top in most places. The second was a chipmunk gathering food from the trail! I have never seen a chipmunk on New Year’s Day before; the mild weather must have enticed it out of its burrow. Chipmunks are not true hibernators, as they do not sleep the winter away. Rather, they spend it in a state of torpor and wake up every three weeks or so to feed and eliminate waste.
From there I checked a spot in Bridlewood where I thought I might find some grosbeaks. The hydro cut on Bridgestone Drive next to Bluegrass Park has lots of berries in the winter, and I was not disappointed to find a large flock of starlings, a few robins, and two Dark-eyed Juncos in the shrubs right next to the road. Several starlings and robins flew onto the grassy lawn of the house next to the hydro corridor to search for bugs.
Deeper in the hydro cut I found several House Finches and American Goldfinches, more juncos, a couple of cardinals….and at least five Bohemian Waxwings! They have been sparse this winter, and this is only the second time I’ve seen this species this season. Their soft trills mixed with the clucks and gurgles of the starlings in the same shrub.
By the time I headed home at 11:30 I had reached my goal with 20 species. However, a rare bird alert had been issued for an immature Laughing Gull at the Moodie Drive Quarry so after lunch and a brief rest I headed back out. By the time I reached the quarry about a dozen Herring Gulls were resting on the ice with the single Laughing Gull, and a Glaucous Gull was perched atop the sand hills. This is the second time I’ve seen a Laughing Gull in Ottawa, and the first time I’ve seen a Glaucous Gull on New Year’s Day. Interestingly, all the Herring Gulls flew off leaving only the Laughing and Glaucous Gulls behind. I followed up my short visit with a drive down Trail Road, looking for Red-tailed Hawks but finding a Peregrine Falcon instead.
My last stop of the day was the Eagleson Ponds in a search for waterfowl. Two Canada Geese were swimming on the pond, and I had five Mallards fly by overhead, adding to the day’s count. I was surprised to hear the “chuck” calls of a blackbird and tracked it down as I couldn’t tell whether it was a grackle or a Red-winged Blackbird. It flew off before I reached it, but I saw enough of it in flight to tell that it was a Red-winged Blackbird! It was definitely not present on any previous visits, so it had probably flown up here with the mild weather rather than over-wintered here.
While I was tracking down the Red-winged Blackbird, I became distracted by the sound of something crying in the vegetation beneath the bridge. It sounded like an animal in distress, and it made me think of the squeaking noise some birders make to lure out birds but much harsher. I saw a brown mammal poke its head out from beneath the vines growing over the rocks then disappear again. It did this a few times before rushing out of the hole and into the water. It swam beneath the bridge, emerging on the rocks along the shore.
It was the mink, and my first sighting since I saw one on the same day I found the Greater White-fronted Goose back on October 23rd! I’m not sure if the crying sound came from it or from some poor unfortunate animal it had taken as its prey; it made no sound as it emerged onto a rock, then swam over to the ice where it sat out on the ice long enough for me and a few other people to photograph it.
The American Mink is active year-round; it does does not hibernate, nor does its fur turn white in the winter (unlike the weasels known as stoats or ermine). However, it may spend extended periods of inclement weather in its den, feeding on the food it has cached there. Its diet typically shifts to mammals such as rodents, shrews, rabbits, and muskrats in the winter, though open water provides access to fish and crayfish as well. In fact, I watched it dive into the water and come up with a small fish which it promptly ate in front of me!
It was a great way to end the day. The Mallards and Red-winged Blackbird brought my year list up to 28 species, a pretty good start compared to most of my New Year’s Day lists!
On January 2nd I headed over to Mud Lake, always a great spot to see a variety of birds regardless of the season. I was hoping for some hawks, gulls, and waterfowl, and was not disappointed to add Ring-billed Gull, American Black Duck and Common Goldeneye to my year list. However, those were the only species I did add, so the next day I visited Old Quarry Trail hoping to find some winter finches, waxwings, and perhaps even a Black-backed Woodpecker. The woods were pretty quiet, however, and my best finds occurred at the marsh. The first was a beaver cutting down vegetation and taking it to its lodge.
It was a fair distance away, and when I saw it start to swim toward the boardwalk I backed off, hoping it would climb on top and walk over where I could get a few pictures. Instead there was enough room beneath the boardwalk for it to swim with a large branch and disappear into the maze of cattails. I was excited to see it as I never did find one last year.
At the other boardwalk I started pishing in hopes of luring out the American Tree Sparrows that usually hang out in the reeds in the winter. I thought I heard one, but it wasn’t amenable to revealing itself to me. Then, while crossing the boardwalk I thought I heard the call note of a Song Sparrow. I haven’t seen one since the day of the Richmond Christmas Bird Count, and lately it seems more and more of them have been overwintering in Ottawa in places with lots of cattail cover close to water. I started pishing, but heard nothing. Then I turned on my phone and played a brief recording of Song Sparrow calling and not one, but two popped out into the open and started calling back! I stopped the recording, and the birds remained in view for long enough to take a photo. Interestingly, eBird’s rarity filter was activated once I entered “2” individuals; it seems that one is expected in a given area during the winter, but more than one isn’t. The mild weather and recent south winds are likely the reason that two (or more!) are overwintering in the same area. It doesn’t hurt, either, that many people leave birdseed along the boardwalk rails, and I added some to make up for disturbing them.
It’s been a fantastic start to 2023 with 32 species as of January 3rd as well as some unusual mammals. I’m hoping that now that I’m feeling much better I’ll have as good a year as 2020 – if the weather and the birds will cooperate!