January birding in ontario
It's the mid-point of winter, and the birding is slo-o-o-ow. Over the past month, we have added only 5 species, and had to work hard for those. We have had some frigid weather recently, with -30 degree nights, and hoped that might bring some northern species down, but no sign of that yet. We hear rumours of a Pine Siskin in Hillsdale, so will try to track it down, but generally finches are as rare as proverbial hen's teeth!
Last month we mentioned how a snow storm blocked our way to a Barnacle Goose that was hanging out in Grimsby. So we have tried again for it - twice - but no success. The good news, however, is that the west end of Lake Ontario hosts thousands of winter ducks and geese, so there are always lots of birds to look at. The bad news - we have already seen almost all of the winter waterfowl species, so finding something different can be a tedious process.
Winter birding along the Great Lakes shoreline is a multi-layered experience. Primarily layers of clothing, that is, since there always seems to be a chill wind. So the long underwear and layers of sweaters and vests get overlain by ski pants, big lined boots, parkas and hats to help sustain your core temperature as you stand behind a spotting scope and tripod, slowly scanning distant rafts of ducks. People tend to gaze speculatively at you when you visit the Tim Horton's in such garb, but we just mutter something about how urban Canadians don't know how to dress for the weather.
Our reward, though, consisted of three new species of waterfowl - the elegant and aristocratic Canvasback, an uncommon visitor from the northern Arctic islands known as King Eider, and finally, Black Scoter. There are three species of scoters that visit Lake Ontario in the winter - all three are mostly black, and tend to gather well offshore where they bounce in and out of sight on the waves. White-winged Scoters are common; Surf Scoters less abundant but still fairly common in some areas, but we had to sift through thousands of these species before we spotted the characteristic colourful beak and all-black plumage of a Black Scoter. Typically, it was late in the day, at our last stop, when a handful of this elusive species casually swam into view, indifferent to our freezing fingers and streaming eyes.
Our other two finds of the month were also rarities, found by others and posted on birding websites. A spectacularly bright Varied Thrush showed up at feeders in Cold Creek Conservation Area near Nobleton, far from his B.C. nesting grounds. When we arrived, several birders were just leaving, having seen the Thrush a few minutes earlier. Even though they suggested it showed up to feed only every two hours or so, it was only about 45 minutes before it popped out again to give us a good look - a bit like a Robin with a dark breast band and more colourful back and head. While we waited, we were able to renew old friendships with some of the dozen or so birders gathered to keep watch. (This great photo of a Varied Thrush was taken by John Buril.)
Our other rarity is much less colourful - a Harris's Sparrow in winter plumage at a feeder near Bracebridge. This is one of the larger sparrows, and during nesting season in the central Arctic, it sports a dark triangular bib much like our urban House Sparrows. But Harris's Sparrow does have a claim to fame in the trivia category - it is one of only two bird species that nests solely in Canada. The other? The charismatic and critically endangered Whooping Cranes that nest in Wood Buffalo national park in northern Alberta. Most of the other candidates extend their breeding range into Alaska.
So what will February bring for us? Not many new species, though we still hope some of the winter finches may favour us with a visit. We plan to visit Algonquin in search of its specialties - Pine Grosbeaks, Gray Jays, Boreal Chickadees, etc. And the area around Petroglyphs provincial park north of Peterborough sounds promising for Red Crossbills, Golden Eagles, and other winter birds, so that may be worth a visit too.
For now, we sit at 97 species, and pledges of just under $50 per species. Thanks again for your support, and please continue to pass on the opportunity for pledges to your friends - they just have to e-mail us with their pledge and contact info. Remember that all funds raised will help to purchase Wolf Run Alvar. On that front, we received very good news this month, that the federal government funding program will support half of the acquisition costs, so we are well on the way!
All the best,
Ron & Janet