April has arrived, and I think spring has finally arrived with it. We’ve finally had some nice, sunny days and the weather has warmed up, so Deb and I finally got together to do some birding on the second day of April. We headed over to Mud Lake, where we only managed to tally 20 species; this is usually a great place to take in spring migration, but there was surprisingly little difference in the species seen since my previous visit on March 18th. The best birds there were an American Tree Sparrow, three Wood Ducks flying along the river, and an adult Cooper’s Hawk in the woods. Once again a male and female Downy Woodpecker pair came readily to my hand to take some food. I am now noting these birds in eBird, as I’ve been hand-feeding them for a couple of years now. The starlings singing near the filtration plant were of special interest, as we heard them imitating the calls of a Killdeer, an Eastern Wood-pewee, and even a Tree Frog!
I usually never believe the groundhogs when they predict an early spring. Regardless of whether they see their shadow, spring usually arrives right when it’s supposed to – between the second and third weeks of March. An “early” spring might arrive on St. Patrick’s Day rather than the solstice a couple of days later; however, the weather usually remains unsettled, with some snow and sub-zero temperatures still occurring at least a week or two later. The last two years were the exceptions, when spring didn’t arrive until the temperatures rose to above 0°C around April! In fact, the new trend seems to be one of seasons arriving later than usual – just look at how long it took winter to get here this year!
When the weather forecast predicted above-zero temperatures every day starting on Sunday, March 6th I was skeptical. We usually get one or two snowstorms in the first half of March, a last act of defiance on the part of Old Man Winter. We got our snow on March 1st, and then by Sunday the temperature rose to +3°C.
One of the birds that makes our long, cold Ottawa winters tolerable is the Snow Bunting. These songbirds typically begin arriving in late October or early November and stay till the end of March, making them a true “snow bird”. In the early part of the season they are most likely to be found foraging along the shore of the Ottawa River, particularly in somewhat rocky areas like Shirley’s Bay. While I usually see a few small flocks at Shirley’s Bay in November, most of my sightings occur during December, January, and February, after the river has frozen and the Snow Buntings move into agricultural areas where they feed on weeds, grass seeds and corn. They also come to gravel roads to ingest grit, which assists their gizzards in grinding the small seeds they typically eat.
Even though the winter solstice is still two weeks away, there’s no use in denying it: winter is here. It doesn’t seem fair that we had a late spring this year, and now we’re having an early winter. There are thin, crusty patches of snow on the ground in places, and we’ve had some really cold days lately – so cold, that on Sunday I didn’t want to go out birding.
Astronomical winter begins on December 21st this year, the shortest day of the year. However, when it comes to birding, there’s something to be said for defining the seasons meteorologically. Meteorological seasons occur in three-month blocks, just like astronomical seasons, but they start on the 1st day of March, June, September and December. In this case, winter begins on December 1st and ends on February 28th, the coldest three-month period of the year in the northern hemisphere. This corresponds to the “winter birding season”, when the fewest number of species are typically present in our area; and the number of species keeps dropping throughout this period, until late February when the birding doldrums hit and it seems as though spring migration will never begin.
Last Sunday Deb and I met up and did some west-end birding. Despite waking up to a dense fog, our plan was to visit the river and the Trail Road landfill for gulls and waterfowl. We did both of those, although we also spent some time driving along the back roads south and west of Ottawa, too. At our first stop, Andrew Haydon Park, we found a number of gulls standing on the watery ice that covered the ponds. For the first time this season I spotted a few Herring Gulls among the more numerous Ring-billed Gulls. There was one large, brownish juvenile on the western pond and at least half a dozen adults on the eastern pond. Two adult Great Black-backed Gulls bobbed on the river’s surface beyond the ponds, although shortly after we found them they took to the air and flew directly toward us, then disappeared over Carling Avenue.
Even though winter is still a full calendar month away, this year it came early to eastern Ontario. On Sunday, November 16th we got our first real snow of the season. It came down on and off all day, heavy enough at times to make me question going out birding, though it didn’t really accumulate as the temperature warmed up to 0°C in the afternoon.
Saturday was the much better day for birding, though I didn’t stay out too long as it was cold but sunny. I started off with a walk around the ponds by my place, but the sub-zero overnight temperature had resulted in ice forming on about half of the ponds. As a result, there were few birds of interest around – a single Dark-eyed Junco, a small flock of goldfinches, and a Northern Cardinal were feeding in the weedy field, while three Common Mergansers were the only interesting waterfowl on the water. Four Snow Buntings flying over were also great to see – this was the first time I’d seen them over the ponds, bringing my list up to 61 species. Continue reading →
The first day of 2014 dawned bright and sunny, with a faint pink and peach hue to the pale blue morning sky. It was cold, too – bitterly cold. I left the house at 8:00 am with the temperature fluctuating between -24°C and -21°C, and although I was out until close to noon, it never really got any warmer.