I was really hoping to be blogging about spring by now: about open rivers and flooded fields, about groundhogs emerging from hibernation, about waterfowl and blackbirds and Killdeer and phoebes and warm sunny days. Although we are now over a week past the spring equinox, few signs of spring have appeared in the Ottawa region so far.
Winter has been slow to relinquish its grip this year. Normally we get a few days in mid-March where the temperatures rise to +8 or 10°C, bringing Red-winged Blackbirds, Common Grackles, Turkey Vultures, Song Sparrows and other early migrants. Sometimes we even see a few overwintering butterflies emerge. That didn’t happen this year. Instead it has remained very cold, with morning temperatures around -15°C or colder, and daytime highs rarely climbing above the freezing mark. We also haven’t had very many days with southerly winds to bring migrating birds north. Although a few migrants have begun to trickle in, only the Ring-billed Gulls seem to be back in good numbers. While I finally saw my first Canada Geese (4) in the half-frozen ponds on Eagleson Road on Monday, I still haven’t seen my first Red-winged Blackbird. Fortunately, the daytime temperatures are finally supposed to rise above 0°C now, so hopefully migration will begin in earnest soon.
Owl 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.
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