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The End of Winter

Porcupine

Porcupine

February has ended, and so has the winter birding season. Although the weather is by no means spring-like just yet (we just received another 30 cm of snow last week!), it is time to put the 2012-13 winter list away and look forward to the first spring migrants returning. Already the cardinals, chickadees, and House Finches are singing their spring songs, and just last week I heard the first Mourning Dove calling in the neighbourhood. This is especially significant as I haven’t seen or heard any doves in the neighbourhood at all this past winter.

Deb and I have been going out birding nearly every weekend. At the beginning of February we took a drive out to the east end where we found a flock of Snow Buntings on Giroux Road together with a single Horned Lark – a new bird for my winter list. The Snow Buntings were the first ones I’d seen in the Ottawa area – we had some at Amherst Island in January – and when they landed on top of a telephone wire I rolled the window down and took a few pictures.

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Great Gray Owls in Ottawa: Baiting and Abetting

Great Gray Owl with store-bought mouseOwl baiting. These two words cause more arguments between birders and bird photographers than any others.

Owl baiting is the feeding of live mice, usually bought from pet stores, to wild owls with the purpose of obtaining photographs of the owl in flight or making the kill. It is not “feeding” the owl, otherwise people would simply let a whole box of mice loose in the field every day and leave, allowing the owl to find and catch them on its own. Instead, the mice are released one at a time, allowing those photographing it to capture dramatic images of the owl flying in and swooping down on its prey.

In early January, four Great Gray Owls were discovered on NCC land near Green’s Creek in Ottawa’s east end. Although the presence of these birds was kept quiet at first, eventually a local photographer saw or heard about them and sent a barrage of emails to Ontbirds which not only gave precise details on how to get to the owls, but also a Google map of the area, a link to the Ottawa Citizen in which he had been quoted, and, of course, links to his photos. The result of this email campaign was entirely predictable: dozens of people began showing up at the site, and the baiting began.

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Reporting Owls: Doing More Harm than Good?

Owls have a power to fascinate us that no other birds do. They seem to dwell in a realm that lies somewhere between the natural and the mythological, representing a wilderness untamed and untouched by human hands. When you chance upon one and stare into the solemn, unsettling eyes of a Barred Owl or the bright, glaring yellow eyes of a Great Horned Owl, you know you are in the presence of something utterly inhuman – and inhumanly beautiful. These sleek, silent, feathered predators captivate our imaginations, possibly because they are so infrequently seen, and possibly because of the aura of mystery that surrounds them…especially those that dwell in the woods where their cryptic camouflage and nocturnal habits make them difficult to spot.

While some eastern North American owls remain on their breeding territories all year round, including the Great Horned Owl, Eastern Screech Owl and Barred Owl, other species are migratory and may be found more easily in the fall and winter as they move through urban and suburban areas to their wintering grounds. These species, which include Long-eared Owl, Short-eared Owl, Northern Saw-whet Owl, and the four northern species – Snowy Owl, Northern Hawk Owl, Great Gray Owl, and Boreal Owl – typically move south in response to food shortages on their breeding grounds or, in the case of last winter’s spectacular Snowy Owl irruption, a population boom that led to an increase in competition for the same food resources. Younger owls, having no territories of their own, were pushed much farther south than normal in order to find a place to spend the winter.

Eastern Screech Owl
Mud Lake, 2010

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Two New Wildlife Cams

Screech Owl roosting in nest box

Screech Owl roosting in nest box

My feeders have been quiet these days; I haven’t seen the neighbourhood chickadees in a while, though I don’t know if that’s because they haven’t been coming or whether they are only showing up while I am out. I did see a Merlin in the neighbourhood a few weeks ago, so that may also have something to do with their disappearance.

Given the absence of wildlife in my own yard, I find it fascinating to see what birds are visiting other peoples’ yards. Cornell Lab of Ornithology is hosting a new FeederWatch Cam from a backyard in Manitouwadge, Ontario, a northern town located about halfway between Timmins and Thunder Bay. The feeders sit in the middle of a large backyard near a birch tree, a mixed stand of conifers and several fruit trees that provide additional sources of food and shelter. At the feeders the birds can snack on black oil sunflower seeds, nyjer seed, whole and shelled peanuts, and peanut butter suet in a homemade hanging log.

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Happy World Wetlands Day!

While most people know February 2nd as Groundhog Day, few people realize that it is also World Wetlands Day. World Wetlands Day originated in the Iranian city of Ramsar on February 2, 1971 with the signing of the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, an international treaty that promotes the conservation of wetlands and their resources. The first modern treaty designed to protect natural resources, 2,083 sites comprising 488 million acres of land have been designated as wetlands of international significance under the Ramsar Convention.

The Convention’s mission is “the conservation and wise use of all wetlands through local and national actions and international cooperation, as a contribution towards achieving sustainable development throughout the world”. “Wetlands” is a term that is defined broadly by the treaty, and includes lakes, rivers, swamps, marshes, wet grasslands, peatlands, oases, estuaries, deltas, tidal flats, near-shore marine areas, mangroves and coral reefs, as well as human-made sites such as fish ponds, rice paddies, reservoirs, and salt pans.

Mer Bleue
Designated as a Ramsar Convention Site on September 26, 1995

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OFNC Trip to Amherst Island

Common Merganser

On Saturday, January 27, 2013, the Ottawa Field-Naturalists’ Club (OFNC) trip to Amherst Island finally took place after being delayed twice, the first time because of deer hunting in Owl Woods and the second time because of the weather. We couldn’t have asked for better weather for trip; although it was -20°C when we left, it warmed up to a beautiful -7°C with periods of both sun and cloud. The deep freeze had ended just in time.

We left at 7:30 am in order to catch the 10:30 ferry, stopping briefly at the Mallorytown service center to refuel our cars and our bodies. We saw at least three Red-tailed Hawks, one flock of Wild Turkeys, and two porcupines sleeping in a deciduous tree on the drive down.

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The January Birding Blues

Barred Owl

January, as usual, is turning out to be a wretched month for birding. First we had rain and foggy, mild temperatures two weekends ago; then last weekend we got more snow, including sudden squalls that resulted in white-out conditions; and now a cold Arctic air mass has settled over Ontario, causing the jet stream to sag to the far south (in this case, Alabama!) and temperatures to fluctuate between to -20°C during the day and -30°C at night. As a result, I’ve only been able to add two birds to my winter list and four birds to my year list since the first weekend of January.

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Thirty Birds

Common Redpoll

Common Redpoll

The new year is only five days old and already I have tallied thirty bird species in three outings. Once again, the American Crow was the first bird of the new year, followed by European Starling. I didn’t get the early start I had wanted on New Year’s Day, but I still managed to leave the house around 9:00 and find the Rough-legged Hawk near the intersection of Brownlee and Eagleson Roads right away. Two Red-tailed Hawks near the Trail Road Landfill were the only other raptors I’ve seen so far this year.

At Jack Pine Trail I added both nuthatches, a small flock of Common Redpolls, a couple of American Tree Sparrows and a Northern Cardinal to my brand-new year list, while the Harlequin Duck still present north of Bate Island and the Carolina Wren at Mud Lake provided two easy ticks for birds rarely seen in Ottawa. Two Canada Geese swimming in the channel behind the ridge were a good find, though I have heard that one has an injured wing. By the time I saw the Pine Grosbeaks along March Valley Road I was tired and ready to quit, even though I only tallied 23 species that day.

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A New Year, A New List

New Year’s Eve. A time to think back on our accomplishments of the past twelve months, to remember the highlights, and look ahead to what we hope the new year will bring. For many birders, New Year’s Eve is a time to turn the page and begin a brand new year list. This is one of the highlights of winter for me, because on January 1st every bird is new again…even the pigeons and starlings, even the crows. As I start the year I wonder what new life birds I will see in 2013. Will any rarities show up in Ottawa, and will they be as long-staying as the Razorbill last year? Or will they merely be a one-day wonder like the Ivory Gull this year? Will I see any new life birds in Point Pelee in May? Will I reach 200 species in the Ottawa study area in 2013, or 300 species on my life list?

The weather forecast looks promising for tomorrow: cold, but sunny. Although I plan to stay up until midnight tonight to ring in the new year, I also plan to wake up early tomorrow morning to start my new year list. My last new bird for December (and my winter list) was a Northern Shrike seen along Barnsdale Road. Hopefully both the shrike and the Rough-legged Hawk on Brownlee Road will still be around tomorrow.

Northern Shrike

Northern Shrike – my best photo yet of this species, despite the overcast conditions

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