February is my least favourite month of the year, and the weather we’ve had so far has not given me any reason to change my opinion. First we had the bitter cold of the Family Day long weekend. Then on February 16th, Ottawa set a new record for the amount of snowfall in one day: 50 cm. Of course, that was a work day, and even downtown the plows had trouble keeping up with the accumulation on the roads – the snow was falling in a heavy downpour, and both the roads and the sidewalks were a mess throughout the evening commute. A week later, the city received a significant amount of rain followed by a sudden drop in temperature which turned the sidewalks into ice. Another brief rise in temperatures forced the Rideau Canal skateway to officially close for the season on February 25th after one of its shortest season in 46 years – 34 days with only 18 skating days. I have never felt less like birding since this obsession started about nine years ago.
As is usual this time of year, the birding around Ottawa has become very quiet. A few uncommon overwintering birds are still around, such as the Northern Mockingbird at Mud Lake and the Harlequin Duck at Bate Island, but overall there has been little change to the birding scene. It is about this time of year that the law of diminishing returns comes into effect – the more one goes out, the fewer new or interesting birds there are to see, and it seems to make no difference whether you are out birding for two hours or five. Given the weather this time of year, I prefer shorter outings to longer ones: long enough to get some exercise and stave off the boredom that comes from spending too much time indoors, but short enough to minimize my exposure to the elements.
On January 30th I joined Jon Ruddy’s Eastern Ontario Birding outing to Amherst Island. I haven’t been there in three years – not since the last OFNC outing on January 26, 2013 – so a trip there was long overdue. Late January is a great time to go, as by this time of the year the winter birding blahs have set in and I find that a change of scenery really helps to get me through the rest of the winter. A trip to Amherst Island with all of its overwintering birds of prey is the perfect antidote to the Ottawa birding blues that usually start creeping in this time of year.
Jon picked me up dark and early at 6:30 am, requiring the early start in order to pick up another member in Perth. On the way to the ferry dock in Millhaven we saw an adult Bald Eagle and a muskrat on a two different lakes along Highway 7. We arrived at the ferry dock at 9:15 am, where we met the rest of the group and began checking out the ducks in the bay.
On January 22nd and 25th I returned to the New Edinburgh area to look for the Summer Tanager first discovered on December 25, 2015. It was seen in the vicinity of Avon Lane as late as January 23rd, according to eBird, and as I had discovered that it didn’t take long to get there by bus from Elgin Street, I headed over there twice during the work week to see if I could spot it.
Unfortunately, because I was on my lunch break, I didn’t have much time to spend looking for it. I failed to see it on both attempts, and on Monday it quickly became apparent why: a huge Cooper’s Hawk was perching in one of the large trees that overlook the yards behind Queen Victoria Street, keeping an eye on the feeder. Although I was disappointed at first that the Summer Tanager wasn’t present, I started to feel relieved instead, for I didn’t want the rarity to become lunch for the hawk.
We are now nearly three weeks into the new year and already I’m detecting a rather concerning weather trend: the sun comes out during the week, when I’m working, and then when the weekend arrives the clouds and the precipitation (both rain and snow so far this month) arrive with it. I prefer to do my birdwatching and photography on days with some sun, as the sunlight brightens up the dreary gray-and-white landscape and makes the colours on the birds pop. It’s often difficult to see the field marks on a dark bird silhouetted against a white sky, especially from a distance; and in the woods, it’s often too dark beneath the trees to get any decent photographs. Still, I hate being cooped up indoors for any length of time, so even when it’s been rainy or snowy I’ve been trying to get out to find some birds to add to my year list. The list has been growing slowly but steadily, with 12 new birds added since I went back to work on January 4th.
Today is the last day of my vacation – and it snowed all day. I really wanted to find more birds to add to my year list, but I wasn’t sure how bad the roads would be and didn’t want to take a chance driving. Instead I stayed home, worked on my blog, and watched the birds through the window. As the snow was quite heavy at times, I didn’t think I would see a lot of birds; however, the weather seemed to have the opposite effect, for not only did I see a record-high number of species in one day (at least for the winter), I also got a new yard bird!
Activity started early in the morning, with three Dark-eyed Juncos and a single chickadee visiting the feeder out back. The large flock of starlings returned, with four out back and the rest perching in the tall tree across the street. A Blue Jay landed briefly in the same tree, a distance apart from the starlings, then flew off toward my backyard a few minutes later. Although two others were perching in a tree several yards away, none came to my feeder. Usually I don’t see any Blue Jays around in the winter, as the ones that come regularly for peanuts in the fall usually suddenly disappear toward the end of each November – I suspect they may migrate south.
For the last few days I’ve been eagerly awaiting January 1st and beginning a brand new year list. After the snowstorm on December 29th (which dropped a whopping 25 cm of snow on the city) I didn’t even feel like going out and searching for birds as I knew I would be doing the same thing on January 1st when every species would be brand new again. So when I awoke yesterday at 5:30 am, still a little bleary-eyed from staying up until midnight, I was excited to hit the trails and see how many birds I could add to my 2016 year list.
Last year, I spent New Year’s Eve trying to calculate the most likely birds I would see. I ended up with 18 species out of the 30 most frequently recorded species. Despite getting out the door at 7:40 am yesterday, I was only out for 2.5 hours when the scattered flurries in the forecast turned into a heavy snowfall that sent me home. Again I ended up with only 18 species, having decided to forego my trip to Mud Lake because I wasn’t sure how quickly the road conditions would deteriorate.
Winter finally arrived yesterday with a mix of freezing rain and snow that left my driveway a frozen sheet of ice and kept me indoors most of the day. The temperature dropped overnight, and the high today reached only -8°C – the first really cold day we’ve had this winter. Even worse, there is a winter storm warning currently in effect that will last from midnight tonight until the following midnight. Environment Canada predicts 20-35 cm of heavy and blowing snow, so despite the cold I knew I had to get out today if I didn’t want to be stuck indoors for three days straight.
I didn’t leave until after lunch, when the temperature finally rose above -10°C (I just wasn’t ready for those minus double-digits yet)! My first stop was Century Road south of Richmond to check on the Mountain Bluebird. It’s only a 15-minute drive from my house, and as I was quite taken with this bird I was looking forward to seeing her again.
While a lot people like to get out early on Boxing Day to hit the stores, I like to get out early to hit the trails. It was very quiet and peaceful at the Beaver Trail this morning, and I had the place to myself for almost the entire 90 minutes I was there. I chose the Beaver Trail as I hadn’t been there since early October and was curious as to whether the new boardwalk was finished. Besides, you never know what might show up in Stony Swamp – my hopes were high for something fantastic, like Great Horned Owl, Northern Goshawk, Black-backed Woodpecker, American Three-toed Woodpecker, Pine Grosbeak or either crossbill species. My expectations were realistic, however, and I figured I would be lucky if I saw a Ruffed Grouse. The temperature was only -3°C, and although it felt cold after the 17°C weather we had on Christmas Eve, the day was gorgeous with the sun sparkling on the frost-coated trees and vegetation.
As expected for this time of year, the woods were quiet. At first the only birds I observed were a couple of chickadees, White-breasted Nuthatches and crows. I thought that the ponds might still be open, but both were frozen solid.
The Ottawa-Gatineau annual Christmas Bird Count was held on December 20th, and with the warm December we’ve had so far, there was no snow cover and almost all the rivers and ponds were completely open. This resulted in the second-highest number of species ever tallied; among the 86 species were a large number of waterbirds and late-lingering land birds that would have otherwise flown south by now or perished in the cold. The open rivers and ponds also resulted in the highest number of Canada Geese, Buffleheads and Hooded Mergansers ever tallied, and White-breasted Nuthatches, White-throated Sparrows, and Dark-eyed Juncos also enjoyed new high counts.