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06 December 2009 @ 09:29 pm
Starting the winter list  

For birders who like to keep lists, December 1st marks the first day of counting species for a brand new list: the Winter List. Birders record every species they find during the months of December, January and February in an attempt to liven up the three quietest months of the year and find those rare winter visitors - such as the Townsend's Solitaire that spent the winter of 2007-08 in Ottawa, and the Phainopepla that is still hanging out in Brampton - that may be around. The first two weeks of December are the most important in building a large winter list, for the rivers are usually open, attracting various waterfowl species still passing through, and a few lingering migrants may still be around, not yet in a hurry to fly south if the temperatures are still mild. December 1st fell on a Tuesday this year, and I was able to get out at lunch only once during the work week to photograph the Wild Mustard flowers, so until Saturday I only had a few common birds (House Sparrow, Canada Goose, pigeon, crow, raven) on my list.

Eastern Gray Squirrel

When the weekend arrived, I couldn't wait to get out and see what was around. Though chilly (it was a few degrees below zero), the sun was shining intermittently through the clouds and there wasn't much of a wind. Although there were many places I wanted to go, I started with a trip to Shirley's Bay. The feeders on Hilda Road always attract a good number of birds, and I was hoping to see some waterfowl on the river itself.

When I arrived at the feeders, an elderly couple was busy stocking them with seed. Once they left, I sat in the car and waited for the birds to come back. The usual American Tree Sparrows, Blue Jays, chickadees, and Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers and were present, all of which I needed for my winter list.

American Tree Sparrow

I had the windows slightly open in order to hear the birds, and not long after I arrived I realized that I was hearing a thin, high-pitched chip note that sounded like that of a White-throated Sparrow. It wasn't coming from the feeders but from the other side of the road behind me, and when I turned to look I saw the White-throated Sparrow on the ground with a tree sparrow.

White-throated Sparrow

This was an excellent addition to my winter list, for most White-throated Sparrows are long gone by the beginning of winter. Every once in a while, one will stay if there's an abundant food source and plenty of dense cover nearby, and the Fletcher Wildlife Garden has hosted single individuals of this species well into December the previous two years.

Another excellent addition was the Red-winged Blackbird that flew into the trees above the feeders before landing on the ground to pick at the fallen seed. They, too, spend the winter further south; this was the first time I've been able to add this species to my winter list. This one still has some of its juvenal plumage; note the brown feathers on top of its back.

Red-winged Blackbird

Three suet feeders were attached to one of the trees further away, and a Downy Woodpecker was happily working away at the suet until a larger Hairy Woodpecker came along and scared it away. Eventually the Hairy Woodpecker (a male) got tired of the suet and flew over to the large boulders beside the road to examine the seed.

Hairy Woodpecker

I didn't stay too long as there were other places I wanted to go. Next on my list was the boat launch at Shirley's Bay where I hoped to add some waterfowl to my list. The river was very calm, looking rather like a mirror reflecting the cloud-covered sky. At first glance it was entirely empty, but once I started scanning the river with my binoculars I picked out a flock of Common Goldeneyes and a winter-plumaged Common Loon way past the end of the dyke. A second loon was swimming in the water at the base of the dyke, allowing a much better look through the scope. A flock of Common Mergansers (all males) and a single White-winged Scoter flew by.

Once I had seen my fill I headed west along to March Valley Road, where I saw a single Rough-legged Hawk, then to the Kerwin Road trail where I found no new birds to add to my list. A Black-backed Woodpecker or some Golden-crowned Kinglets certainly would have been great additions to my list!

From there I went to Mud Lake. There are usually some robins there, and if there are any waxwings around, Mud Lake is a good place to find them. A lingering Hermit Thrush, like the one I found there two winters ago, would also be welcome. I checked the lake first for the Hooded Mergansers and American Black Ducks I knew were there, and was surprised to find that over half of the water had already frozen over. A large section in the middle of the lake was still open, and it was there that most of the waterfowl - including the two species I was looking for - were concentrated.

I took a walk around the lake but failed to find any robins or waxwings. At the southeast section of the lake, in a large swampy area, however, I found a lot of trees which looked distinctively chewed.

Beaver construction site

Obviously a beaver has been at work here, although I did not see either the beaver or its lodge. This is not the first beaver that has attempted to make its home here; there is a large beaver lodge in the middle of Mud Lake which seems to have disappeared due to the higher water levels this year. Deb and I have actually seen a beaver at Mud Lake on two separate occasions: once on the far side of the Ridge one spring when the river had flooded all the way to the base of the Ridge, and on the second occasion one was swimming in Mud Lake before slapping its tail against the water and disappearing below the surface. It would be nice to get a look at the one responsible for this construction.

While contemplating the damaged trees, I heard the sound of rustling leaves in the woods behind me. I turned around, assuming it was just a squirrel, and was greatly surprised to see a Ruffed Grouse walking through the leaf litter instead! I am not sure if it was aware of me; it quickly walked away from me and disappeared into the tangle of shrubs and fallen trees.

A group of chickadees found me, and so I offered them - and two White-breasted Nuthatches - some sunflower seeds. As I was feeding them, another sound drew my attention: the brief, high-pitched call of a Brown Creeper. It was walking up one of the trees that the beaver had been working on, and although I tried to take its picture, it seemed to guess my intentions. Every time I tried to get close to it, the creeper circled around to the back of the tree where I couldn't see it! Eventually I gave up and continued on my way, stopping at the bridge over the small bay where several squirrels and chickadees were feeding on small piles of seed left by someone else. I added my own mixture to the piles, then waited to photograph the squirrels that came to feed on it. This gray squirrel is lovely with golden-brown tones in its fur in addition to the gray.

Eastern Gray Squirrel

A mallard flew in to investigate, and landed on the the thin ice near the bridge. He managed to walk right up to the bridge without causing the ice to break, and to reward him for his efforts I scooped up some of the seed and tossed it on the ice for him to eat.

Mallard on thin ice

Further along the trail, back in the woods, I came across another group of squirrels feeding on seeds on the ground. I tossed them the remainder of my own bagful, and watched them bicker and chase each other away from the food. This gray squirrel ran up a tree, then turned to look at me as though it were asking me if I had any more.

Eastern Gray Squirrel

The squirrels weren't the only ones interested in the handouts. Five ducks - two blacks and three mallards - walked up from the shore of the lake to the trail where I had scattered the seed. The black ducks were pushier than the mallards, taking the lead and coming almost right up to me to nibble on the seed.

American Black Ducks

I found it amusing to contemplate the five ducks feeding in the woods. Woodpeckers, blue jays, nuthatches, chickadees and Brown Creepers are all birds you'd expect to see feeding in the woods, but ducks?! Definitely not a sight you see every day! Once the food was gone they all turned and waddled back to the water.

American Black Duck

I left, too, walking toward the Cassels Street entrance and then up along the Ridge without seeing any new species for my winter list. Several Ring-billed Gulls were roosting on the ice in the middle of the lake, and a few Common Goldeneyes were swimming in the channel between the shore and the island on the river. However, I never did find any waxwings or robins, so I decided to make one last stop at Andrew Haydon Park to look for other gulls and ducks for my list.