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The Annual January Thaw

Great Horned Owl

For the past three days I’ve been listening to the sound of the steady drip of water from the snow melting on my roof. Almost every year we get a warm spell where the temperature climbs a few degrees above zero for a couple of days. While it is usually called the “January thaw”, sometimes it occurs in February, usually right in the middle of Winterlude. It is a welcome break from the bitterly cold days that remain well within the negative double digits. Not only does this weather make birding more pleasant – despite the heavy gray skies that usually accompany these warm spells – but birds and animals become more active, moving around instead of hunkering down against the cold.

I was hoping that this would happen on Saturday, and started my morning at the Trail Road landfill where I hoped to find at least a couple of different species of gull. Once again I found only Herring Gulls, and the only other birds present were two Red-tailed Hawks, crows and starlings. Even these seemed down in numbers.
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Quiet Descends

Red-breasted Merganser

Red-breasted Merganser

The weather forecast last weekend didn’t look too promising. Some snow, some sun, some cold mornings; I wasn’t sure I wanted to go out, but the lure of the outdoors overcame any initial reluctance. Owls are moving through Ottawa on their way to their wintering grounds, so I thought I would spend Saturday morning in the woods looking for the elusive Long-eared, diminutive Saw-whet, and majestic Great Horned Owls, all of which I needed for my year list. After that I planned to go up to the river in the hopes of seeing some scoters, loons, grebes, etc. The snow was supposed to start around 1:00 so that would give me plenty of time to find some good birds.

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200 Year Birds

Red-necked Grebe

Red-necked Grebe

On Saturday I drove to Dow’s Lake at first light to look for the Surf Scoter that has been hanging out there since Thursday. It was supposed to rain later that afternoon, and indeed the sky was dark and ominous when I left. It was rather cold and damp, too, so I wore my winter coat for the first time this fall, even though the temperature was supposed to rise to 14°C.

When I arrived I heard a couple of Golden-crowned Kinglets in the trees near the parking area. I didn’t see much at the Arboretum, but in the marshy area at the edge of Dow’s Lake I saw six Red-winged Blackbirds perched in a large tree and heard a Song Sparrow singing. Another group of about 20 Red-winged Blackbirds flew by a little later but didn’t land. On the water, there were at least 1000 Canada Geese and perhaps half as many mallards swimming in the bay. A large number of American Black Ducks looked completely black in the poor light.

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