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30 January 2010 @ 06:00 pm
Cold Weather Birding  

It was supposed to be cold today...sunny, but very cold, with the morning temperature only about -23°C. Still, I thought I'd do some car birding, meaning I'd drive to a few places where I could take a brief look around, without lingering in the frigid outdoor air. The first place I went to look was Maple Grove Road, where I hoped to find the Gray Partridges hunkered beneath one of the evergreens for warmth. I parked the car, but it was difficult to see anything beneath the conifers with the sun right in my eyes, so I got out to walk across the lawn on the opposite side of the trees. I searched all the trees on the lawn, then beneath the ones just east of the maintenance yard with no success. They'd probably found a much warmer place to spend the day, and once again I left the area disappointed.

Horned Lark

Next I stopped by the pond on Iber Street. I'd brought some more bird seed, and began tossing it onto the ice. The mallards and Canada Geese came up to the bank to devour the food, but there was no sign of the Wood Duck. The morning was brutally cold and my feet and nose already frozen, so I didn't linger but instead rushed back to the warmth of my car. From there I drove south along Shea Road to check out Aikins and Brownlee Roads. The back roads near Richmond were quiet, the large flock of Snow Buntings on Aikins nowhere to be seen. I didn't expect to find anything on Rushmore Road until a flock of small birds whirled up into the air as I drove along. I immediately pulled over to see what they were, thinking they were the mysteriously absent Snow Buntings. When I brought out my scope, however, I was delighted to realize they weren't Snow Buntings but Horned Larks instead!

These small brown birds are much more difficult to see against the shoulder of the road than the black and white Snow Buntings; no wonder I didn't even see them until I was driving among them! Fortunately they didn't fly too far, only a couple of metres behind the car. I scanned the flock hoping to pick out a bunting or a Lapland Longspur, and was surprised when I actually found a streaky, sparrow-like candidate for the elusive longspur. I haven't seen one in almost three years, so I focused my scope on the bird and watched intently as it foraged along the side of the road. Unfortunately he was half-hidden behind the clumps of dried grass, so all I saw were a few tantalizing glimpses: first his streaky back (yes, it was darker than the streaks of the Horned Larks), then the throat (white, speckled with black) and finally a fleeting glimpse of its head (definitely buffy with black markings, unlike the black-masked yellow of the larks). As I watched, I noticed that the birds were walking toward me as they foraged along the gravelly shoulder. My feet were feeling like frozen blocks in my boots by then, but as a few Horned Larks were almost opposite my car, I ignored the painful cold in order to take a few pictures.

In my experience, larks - and Snow Buntings, for that matter - are skittish and fly away if you try to drive or walk up to them, no matter how slowly you move. I took care to stand as still as possible as they moved closer to me, wondering just how close they would come if I didn't make any sudden moves. It turns out that they will completely ignore you in such circumstances, reminding me of the fabulous day at Ottawa Beach over two years ago when a trio of larks walked along the water's edge right in front of me. I took several photos as a group foraged on the shoulder, while glancing up from time to time to keep an eye on the longspur further behind.

It was interesting to watch them investigate pieces of corn lying on the side of the road.

Just as I was finished photographing the larks and thinking of walking up to the Lapland Longspur, the birds suddenly flushed. They flew off and landed several metres ahead of the car, and the small flock behind them - including the longspur - also flew over to join them. I searched among the groups with my binoculars, then my scope, but couldn't relocate the longspur. I got in the car, hoping to warm up a bit, then slowly drove toward the small driveway where most of them appeared to have landed. I searched the driveway, then the shoulder further ahead, but saw only the small, chunky Horned Larks. I drove a little further, took another look, then gave up, intensely disappointed not to have photographed the longspur. However, my face and my fingers were growing numb with cold, and my feet were intensely and painfully frozen, so I was happy enough to call it a day. I was half-afraid that my toes were black with frostbite, and although it was only a five-minute drive back to my house, I couldn't wait to get there and try to rub some warmth back into them. Fortunately my feet were fine, though I definitely think that -21°C (which it had "warmed" up to by then) is just a little too cold for birding!

Xray Is As Xray Doesxraytheenforcer on February 7th, 2010 01:59 am (UTC)
Yeah, even I have a limit to birding. hahaha. I love the photos, though!
Soul Diasporasoul_diaspora on February 7th, 2010 04:15 am (UTC)
So far my only Horned Lark was at Dick Bell Park--he was there at the end of September 2009 walking on the lawn and on the rocks of the jetty. Handsome fellow. I definitely need to do more rural birding :-)