Keeping an Eye on the Winter Birds

The weather lately hasn’t been too winter-like but it looks like that will soon change as the wind picks up and the lake gives us back some of the moisture as snow squalls. We’ve been taking advantage of the nice calm weather to check out the birds that are still enjoying Bruce County!

For us, Baie du Dore has been a real treat as long as you have good binoculars and a good spotting scope. The birds are here BUT they like to stay just as far away as possible from any access point to view them from. As is normal for the winter months the Bald eagles are around in numbers (usually 10 to 20) and tend to stir up the rest of the birds regularly as they go for a fly. If it looks quiet when you check out the bay just wait until an eagle or two takes to the air and soon ducks will be flying out of the cattails and phragmites as they move to the far end of the bay. NOW…..the only problem with this type of birding is that it’s hard to put photos of dark dots on the bay and say what kind of bird it is :). I’ll just say that there are 2 female Surf scoters, Redheads by the hundreds, a Black scoter female, and lots of mergansers, scaup, Horned grebes and at least three species of gulls. There were Tundra swans but they seem to have moved somewhere warmer lately. How many eagles do you see in the tree below??

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As well as spending time at the bay we’ve been driving along a few side roads seeing what catches out attention on our travels. There are quite a number of Snow buntings as I mentioned in the last blog and the flocks now seem to be growing in size as they swoop, land, forage, take off and continue this again. It’s amazing to watch the action and listen to the chirping as they perform their aerial acrobatic flying. Usually in one of the larger groups there are a few Lapland longspurs but it’s not easy to pick them out as the birds fly or forage. Here’s a photo of one we got last winter for reference.

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One of the birds I forgot to include in our last blog is one we don’t see often in this area. During the Saugeen Christmas Bird Count we came upon this Dark-eyed junco at a friends feeder. It is an Oregon subspecies of the Dark-eyed junco and is quite striking in appearance.

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The majority of the juncos we see here are the Slate-coloured subspecies so the black and reddish of this bird do look quite different. It’s usually a western bird and is the most common junco found in the Pacific area mountains. It’s always interesting to see a subspecies different from the one we normally have and with the Dark-eyed junco there are seven subspecies to be on the watch for. You just never know what might show up around this area one day!

Deviating for a moment from the winter bird theme we also have other visitors strolling through the yard these days. Not often we see them in enough light to get a reasonable photo but Red fox is one of two that often checks out to see if there is anything better than birdseed in the yard!

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We have seen tracks and other signs of fox in this area for several years but not often do we get to enjoy them, as they are a very secretive animal. I’m sure their presence is one of the reasons we seldom see rabbits or other small animals in the yard. I guess the Red squirrels are reasonably safe as they forage in the daytime when the fox is usually asleep. They also keep a pretty close eye on the yard and the sky for anything taking too large an interest in them and head for the trees if anything looks abnormal to them.

On some of our birding side trips Anne-Marie and I do come across a few birds that probably should be south by now. A small flock of Snow geese appeared over us one day and it didn’t look like they were quite sure where they were going as they changed direction several times as we watched and snapped a few photos. There were a few dark morphs among them as you can see from the photo.

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They eventually disappeared in the distance in a southerly direction which is certainly the direction I would be picking on the windy, cold day we saw them. Usually we only see one or two in the company of Canada geese so it was special to see these in a small flock on their own. These birds are a much more common sight in eastern Ontario and we’ve seen gatherings of several thousand of them in one field several kilometres outside of Ottawa.

One other bird that we often head out on the sideroads to see if we can pick out of the snowy landscape is of course the Snowy owl. These are the largest of the owls (by weight) and are quite the majestic birds either sitting or cruising through the air hot on the heels of dinner. We had seen a few this winter but the last week of January we got a real treat as we ended up in the midst of what seemed to be a fallout of the Snowy owls. In one area north of Paisley you could see 14 or more Snowy owls while standing on one location and there were about 30 of the owls in a 4 kilometre square area. It was an amazing sight to see but hard to photograph, as they were white lumps out in brown and white fields. Two days after we saw the initial group they seemed to have spread out as small groups were along some of the sideroads where we normally look for owls. We again drove over to sideroad 25 and back home and on our drive that day we saw 39 Snowy owls. It was indeed quite a special day. Some of the owls were close enough to the road to get a reasonable photo but most were well out in the fields.

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In a few days we again travelled the same route and it was difficult to see even a couple of the owls along the roads. We still see a few of the Snowy owls fairly close to home but it’ll probably be a long time before we come across those numbers of Snowy owls all in one area again!

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As we sat in the living room watching the birds in the yard a few Cedar waxwings landed in a birch tree and caught sight of the bright berries on the native holly or Winterberry shrub. Eventually after chatting among themselves for a few minutes they flew down to the bushes and had a short meal before winging away out of sight. It was a short visit but long enough for us to capture a few photos of the birds gulping down the berries.

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There are still some berries left so we’re hoping that a few Bohemian waxwings happen along and give us another opportunity to capture them in a photo or two. Both of the waxwings are very beautiful birds to see and to hear as they chatter to each other.

Other birds in the yard are also giving us a large entertainment factor as we watch them. The Northern cardinals have come back to the yard this year after nearly deserting us in the past. This year we have eight of the birds eating and chasing whenever they are visible. The males are continually on the chase and even the females get into the act as they bullet around the yard from tree to tree chasing each other. A single Song sparrow also gets into the action as it has laid claim to a large rock that it uses as its dinner table. If one of the Northern cardinals lands on that rock the sparrow has no qualms about chasing it away and keeping it away at least until the sparrow has had its fill.

Before this colder weather arrived it was beginning to look a lot like spring in the yard. The aspen trees were starting to show the little fluffs of buds and the American goldfinch were starting to show quite a bit of yellow again after looking quite dull this winter.

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As the colder weather settled in the ice on the lake began to build again after almost disappearing from the shore. It went from 25-foot ice banks to a few bits of ice along the shore back to ice banks that are 20 feet tall and growing every day. It’s amazing how quickly the appearance of the shoreline can change. As the cold, windy weather settled in so did the time for us to take the Huron Fringe Field Naturalist group on a birding hike. It was indeed a challenge as the cold wind froze your hands while trying to scope the ducks at Baie du Dore and the waves tried their best to hide the birds from view. The large birds were indeed still easy to see and the Bald eagle population in the area didn’t disappoint us. With the eagles we saw perched in trees and flying around the bay and the ones we later saw perched out of the wind there were at least 30 Bald eagles in the area.

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It had snowed in the morning a bit so the drifting snow made it tough to try and find those white owls in a white landscape as we cruised the sideroads. It was actually hard to find any birds as they were about as happy about the return to winter as we were and were staying out of the wind somewhere out of view.

The week marched along and we didn’t venture far from the house as the wind and cold weren’t helping the colds we were trying to shake. The yard birds were still showing up but in fairly small numbers and even the gulls and ducks were tough to see as they cruised by out of sight or in small numbers as well. Yesterday there were a few birds around but soon a juvenile Coopers hawk landed in the yard and suddenly there were no other birds around. The hawk didn’t even stay long enough for a photo but it was quite a while before small bird activity began again. Then Anne-Marie noticed another bird in the hedge and it turned out to be a juvenile Northern shrike.

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That pretty well put an end to ANY bird activity in the way but it was a treat to see the young shrike as it looked around hoping to see something to make into an item on the dinner menu! It didn’t appear to be successful but so far we haven’t seen any sign of our Song sparrow that was so faithfully keeping the Northern cardinals in line. There’s never a dull moment if you have the time to sit and enjoy nature and get lucky enough to capture some of these special moments.

As winter marches on and the woodpile gets smaller I’m sure winter birds will give us much more entertainment. A drive in the countryside is always exciting……as long as you can see at least 10 feet ahead…and a cloud of Snow buntings, a Golden eagle, a Snowy owl, or even a Common raven playing with its mate makes every trip quite special.

Have a happy, short winter (as promised by Wiarton Willie), enjoy the birds and nature in general and tune back in soon as another day or two in the lives of Bob and Anne-Marie will hit the blog.

If you need something to lift your spirits now check out the events in May and June for the Huron Fringe Birding Festival : http://friendsofmacgregor.org/page/schedule-of-events . There are still events available to book and even thinking of spring will put a smile on your face :).

Until next time…….enjoy those feathered friends of winter!!

2 thoughts on “Keeping an Eye on the Winter Birds

  1. Love the read. Can’t believe your luck with seeing all the Snowy Owls. I’ll have to go and take a look. Hard to pull myself away from my backyard. Just wanted to let you know the Oregon Junco is still here. He was gone for a few days when it warmed up but they are all back enjoying the deck again. He seems to boss the others around a bit.
    We took a little drive the other day and came across an opossum crossing the road and trudging through the 6 inches of snow that had fallen. Quite a site. He was the size of a small coon.
    Thanks again Bob and Anne Marie for sharing.
    Pam B.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks Pam :). The owls sure seem to have disappeared somewhere as it’s hard to see one now. I’d like to have another photo of that Oregon junco so we’ll be in contact!
    Haven’t seen many of those opossums around lately but they can get to be quite a size. Nice sharp teeth as well ;).

    Like

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