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10 March 2010 @ 10:18 pm
The meadow voles of spring  

The weather has been unbelievably mild since the beginning of March, with temperatures rising to above zero every day. This past weekend was gorgeous, with the sun shining from a clear blue sky and temperatures reaching at least 6 or 7 degrees Celsuis. I was hoping that the warm weather would result in an influx of migrants, and set out Saturday morning with high hopes. Even though Ontbirds has been unusually silent in reporting spring migrants, I was eager to find the first Red-winged Blackbirds, Canada Geese, grackles, or even a singing robin.

Meadow Vole

After yet another unproductive stop along Maple Grove looking for the Gray Partridges, I drove over to Shirley's Bay to see if I could find some of the Bohemian Waxwings which had been consistently seen along Rifle Road for a few days now. I rolled down the windows and slowed to a crawl and was rewarded when I heard the soft trills of several waxwings! I parked on the shoulder and got out to see if I could find some to photograph for my year list. Unfortunately, the buckthorn berries they were feeding on were well back from the road, and the ones that were perching in trees along the fence were quite high up. Still, I was happy to have found them, as this was only the second time this winter that I had seen them.

Bohemian Waxwings

After that it was time to visit one or two trails in Stony Swamp. I've been neglecting these trails for a while, and was long overdue for a visit so I decided to stop by Sarsaparilla Trail. There were already a few cars in the parking lot, so I took my time in walking the loop. At first I didn't see very much, just the usual chickadees and White-breasted Nuthatches. The pond was still completely frozen and there was nothing of interest to see at the boardwalk so I continued on my way. A little further along I came across a group of chickadees feeding on the seed someone had left on a large rock. Two Red-breasted Nuthatches were feeding with them, so I stayed to take a few photos.

Red-breasted Nuthatch

While I was photographing the birds I became aware of a very soft song issuing from the conifers nearby. The more I listened to it the less certain I became of the identity of the singer. It had a finch-like quality, but the song sounded like that of a Rose-breasted Grosbeak, with the occasional high, squeaky notes of a robin. The song went on and on as well, with no breaks. And since it was so soft, it reminded me of the robins singing at Mud Lake - very quietly, as though practicing their spring breeding/mating songs for when they arrive back on territory. Then the singer moved, and I caught a glimpse of red on the forehead and chin, white on the undersides, and the thick bill of a finch. I knew then that it was either a male House or Purple Finch, but the song didn't match either of the ones I knew. I was reasonably sure it was a Purple Finch given the fact that I've never seen a House Finch at Stony Swamp, and given that it lacked the characteristic harsh "zreeeee" notes of its song. After a long period of watching him, the finch finally moved out into the open, and I saw the strongly notched tail and unstreaked undersides which further confirmed my suspicion that it was a Purple Finch. This brightened my day as it is a species I haven't seen since the summer and the song it was whispering was quite beautiful. I took some video of the bird, but the song was too quiet for my camera to pick up.

Also while watching the Purple Finch I heard a Brown Creeper singing somewhere nearby and saw three birds fly by which sounded suspiciously like Golden-crowned Kinglets.

Next it was time to drive my usual Richmond/Eagleson/Moodie loop looking for birds in the agricultural areas. I found two singing Horned Larks and a Red-tailed Hawk on Rushmore, and nothing further until I reached the dump area. A few gulls were flying overhead, but I couldn't see where they were coming from or where they were going. They certainly weren't visible at the dump, which would have made things easier! A couple of Red-tailed Hawks were perched in trees and on the hydro pole, and when I drove over to Barnsdale Road a loud chorus of crows made me look twice at a group of birds perched in a distant tree in the middle of the field. One was paler than the crows, so I pulled out my spotting scope and realized it was the light-morph Rough-legged Hawk! The poor thing was being harrassed something terrible, for it flew to two different trees before giving up and flying off to the south side of Barnsdale. I got in the car and followed it, hoping for a picture of it soaring, but it disappeared behind the trees before I could focus my camera on it. Still, I could hear the crows screaming close by and figured the Rough-legged Hawk hadn't gone too far.

Then I heard a different sound coming from the corner of Barnsdale and Moodie. I took a walk along the side of the road and came across a Blue Jay imitating a Red-tailed Hawk! It was quite amusing to watch the jay making such funny noises, although when it saw me it immediately resumed its typical "jay-jay" call. The jay flew deeper into the trees, and that's when I heard the rustling coming from the ground.

There is a deep ditch along Barnsdale Road, and it has been filled with water for at least the last two weeks. The rustling noises were coming from the leaf litter just beyond the fence on the opposite side of the ditch, and as I watched I saw a small rodent dart across the ground!

Meadow Vole Habitat

I stopped to listen as the rustling noises continued, a task made difficult by the traffic travelling up and down Barnsdale, but I caught a few more glimpses of the small rodents appearing briefly out in the open along the ditch before disappearing back into a tunnel. That's when I realized the opposite bank was riddled with small holes and tunnels, and full of mammals using them! I decided to toss some birdseed across the ditch and see if I could entice the mammals to stay out long enough to identify them. It took a lot of patience, but was worth it when I saw a few voles pause at the tunnels' entrance in order to feed on the seeds! I got a few photos, although only three are worth sharing despite watching these tiny creatures for more than an hour.

Meadow Voles

This was the neatest thing I've seen in a while. I was told by a friend that this is the best time of year to see the voles. As the snow melts and their runs from the winter are revealed, they can be found rushing around through the vegetation or emerging from remains of snow tunnels. I began to wonder if this spot along Barnsdale was unique, or if the voles could be found in similar areas along the rural roadsides. Whatever the reason, it was certainly enjoyable to sit along the shoulder and wait to see where they would pop up next!

Soul Diasporasoul_diaspora on March 12th, 2010 03:10 am (UTC)
How exciting to see a Purple Finch! I've only logged two sightings of that species, one of which was at Mer Bleue. I love listening to their forever-and-ever warbles. I'm pretty sure there were lots of them singing in the forests of Gaspe, but I never spotted a one. The thick evergreens made it hard to see anything.

No migrant sightings for me either yet (except of course for the Ring-Billed Gulls who recently poured back into town), just lots of year-round and wintering birds acting frisky. I hope to have better luck with migrants at Mud Lake tomorrow.
Gillian: Pink Toreniagillianm on March 12th, 2010 08:59 am (UTC)
Hi Suzanne! I've had luck with Purple Finches at Stony Swamp - Jack Pine Trail is a good place to hear and sometimes see them. They sometimes feed at the big feeder there. Also, two nights ago while getting home from work at dusk I had a single Canada Goose fly over my house, and last night I saw a small chain of them flying over Bell's Corners, so it looks like they're back now, too!
Xray Is As Xray Doesxraytheenforcer on March 12th, 2010 03:18 pm (UTC)
(I don't think I've ever come across a purple finch. super jealous)