Sunday, 29 December 2013

Birding On Ice

On December 21st, Ontario had mild temperatures that dropped and led to freezing rain.  The end result was a branch-shattering ice storm.  I have survived the legendary ice storm of 2013 with minimal damage.  The effects of the ice storm are still lingering, with thousands of people in the Greater Toronto Area still without power.

On the 23rd, I decided to go for a little walk around the neighbourhood where Janean's family lives.  I knew it would be icy but I figured I was pretty good on my feet and should be able to get around just fine.  I walked along the road and made it to little path that runs between two roads and promptly ended up horizontal.  I got up rather sheepishly and kept moving and a few steps later I was flat on my back again.  I had my camera with me and luckily protected it both times and wasn't hurt in the process.  At that point, I realized I was still trying to maintain a pace that is more in line with Victorian roads.  I had to tell myself to calm down and basically shuffle rather than take full steps.  This worked fine until I encountered my first slope.  I was still in my careful-stepping mode but I was getting a little too confident walking in a recent track of a snowmobile that broke the icy crust.  A small section must have been a little tougher and did not get broken.  I hit that stretch and had a rather dramatic tumble and put one hand down to slow my slide and nearly sliced it on the ice.  I triple-checked my hand to make sure it wasn't split open and spurting blood.  I think I'll just stay in the next time there is an ice storm!

Regardless of all those tumbles, I am a sucker for punishment and continued on my walk.  I also got my camera going to document some of the plants, all of which were coated in ice.  I unfortunately don't have any photos to show you some of the aftermath of the ice storm.  Driving into Whitby on the morning of the 22nd, Janean and I a tree that fell onto a powerline, a branch that narrowly missed a parked car, and many of the intersections reverted back to four-way stops because the traffic lights were out.  Despite the rather destructive nature of an ice storm, it certainly adds a certain beauty to the landscape.

Goldenrod coated in ice

Knapweed heads and stems encased in ice

I can see how an ice storm would be hard on birds that eat berries, but luckily some of these are not iced over!

A Staghorn Sumac inflorescence fringed with ice

The intricate needle pattern of a cedar traced in ice

Narrowleaf Cattail flowerhead partially covered in ice

My favourite sight was this backlit patch of cattails - you really can't do it justice with a photo!

I did see some birds along the way.  First, I heard some chickadees and their calls led me to discover a Cooper's Hawk up in a fir tree.  Or perhaps I spotted it while I was on my back... details are sketchy.

This Cooper's Hawk is likely a male based on its rather small size, and it even had me thinking Sharp-shinned at first.

Not the greatest photo, but the Cooper's took off and I reeled around just in time to snap this off.

I walked around in a little park that I checked out last year and I managed to find a little flock that included some Northern Cardinals, American Tree Sparrows, and Black-capped Chickadees.  They were a little too active, but I managed to snap off a photo of each species.

American Tree Sparrow on some icy branches 

Not a good photo, but just wanted to show a Black-capped Chickadee in the icy mayhem

Northern Cardinals never cease to brighten a dull winter day... not that it was dull on this particular day!

I finished off my day by walking over to a feeder that I recalled from last year.  It had a fair bit of activity, but unfortunately all the birds were too far away to photograph.  As a result, you'll just have to take my word for it that I also saw Mourning Doves, a White-breasted Nuthatch, Dark-eyed Juncos, and a couple House Finches.  I hope you all enjoyed the ice storm imagery - it has now melted away, but some unfortunate folks in Toronto are still waiting for power to come back on so they can stock their fridges back up and thaw out.

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Snowy with a Chance of Awe

That was the forecast today here in Ontario.  I managed to get out for a drive today with Janean and we visited our friend Grant.  We advised him that a Snowy Owl had been seen within a few minutes drive from his place, so the three of us piled back in the car and slowly worked our way back to the King's Highway via Scugog Line 2.  Along the way, we encountered a few Red-tailed Hawks, a small flock of American Robins, a Mourning Dove, and a Downy Woodpecker.  Not bad for an area Janean and I should be counting in a little over a week for the Uxbridge CBC.

When we got onto the highway, I pulled off to the side on a stretch between Scugog Line 3 and 4 because that is where I understood the bird had been sighted most recently.  In retrospect, I believe it might actually be seen more regularly north of Scugog Line 4.  At any rate, we scanned the fields on both sides of the road and tried to find a white blob with black vermiculations on white snow drifts.  Sounds easy, right?  After scanning for a few minutes, we decided to drive past the buildings on either side of the road and tried again.  Again, all white fields and no white bird.  We turned off onto Scugog Line 4 heading west and repeated the drill.  This was proving to be a difficult task, so I drove ahead and found a driveway to turn around in and headed back towards the highway.  Around 50 metres before the highway, I happened to notice there was a large white bird on a hydro pole. Bingo!

We carefully pulled off to the side of road, turned off the engine, and I got my camera ready.  We noticed it had prey in its talons and this was a good sign.  Sometimes when Snowy Owls get forced south due to a crash in the lemming population, they end up in areas that are not very hospitable and seemingly lack food resources to sustain them.  I was hoping this wasn't the case with this particular individual because it could well be the highlight bird for Janean and I if we can locate it during the Uxbridge CBC on December 27th.

I think one of the coolest things about this scene was how well the sky matched the Snowy Owl!

At this point, the Snowy Owl had tried to swallow too much and gagged it back up

Graphic and utterly awesome!

We enjoyed watching the Snowy Owl for over 15 minutes and the fact that we were able to watch it devour its prey made it an amazing experience.  I wish my first Snowy Owl encounter - this was a lifer for Janean and Grant - was even half as exciting as this sighting!

I've been purposely ambiguous about what the Snowy Owl had predated.  This deserves its own little extra note!  I suspected the Snowy Owl had a vole while I was watching it, but I was taking photos and let Janean use my binoculars.  Grant and Janean were watching the whole act of the Snowy devouring a small mammal through binoculars and it was suspected that it was a mole.  When a couple of my photos are zoomed in, you can see features that seem to confirm it was indeed a Star-nosed Mole (Condylura cristata)!  I'm only a few days in to this trip out east, but it will be pretty darn hard to top this sighting!

The thick, long tail seems to point to Star-nosed Mole... I would like to see one alive some day!

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Jingle Bell Rock... Wren

Christmas came a little early on the seasonally appropriate Christmas Hill!  On December 11, a birder by the name of Courtney Cameron photographed an interesting wren near the summit of Christmas Hill and she wondered whether it was a Rock Wren.  There is always that moment where you're not quite sure what you're about to see as you check a photo of a possible rarity.  In this case, the very nice photo did not result in a cringe - it was a classic Rock Wren!

I have been quite busy over the past week or so and there wasn't a daylight moment to spare until today.  Even today was a little slim for time, but I decided I wanted decompress with a little bit of rarity chasing.  When I arrived, I dashed along the trail and bounded up rock steps to get up to the top as quickly as possible.  I bumped into Mike Ashbee on the hill and he hadn't had luck connecting with the wren.  We chatted while covering ground and soon found our party size doubled, with Warren Lee and his daughter Rebecca hoping to spy the rare wren from the interior.

We tried fanning out and it was starting to look like we were going to dip on the wren that likes to dip on rocks.  Mike and I made our way to the southwest corner of the hilltop and suddenly a buffy wren darted up from a little gap in a rock outcrop and started bobbing on a patch of moss.  "That's it!" I exclaimed and I immediately looked around for Warren and Rebecca.  They weren't in sight, but I figured they were likely right at the main summit.  Mike kept tabs on the wren and I hustled up to the top and found them moping about and gave them the secret hand signals to indicate the wren had been found - for the record, the signals included a closed fist resting on an open hand for "rock" and both hands being lowered as fingers fluttered for "rain".  It seemed close enough and got the point across.

We all followed the wren around for the next half an hour or so as it actively fed and bobbed up on top of rock outcrop peaks.  It was an extremely cooperative bird and we all enjoyed watching this charismatic, wayward wren do its thing.

Rock Wren with lots of mosses and lichens to pick through for food

Like I said... cooperative!

One last shot of the Rock Wren on Christmas Hill

For some awe-inspiring shots, stop in at Mike Ashbee's photography page to see his shots of the Rock Wren and much more.

Sunday, 1 December 2013


I had to run an errand today at Red Barn Market on West Saanich Rd., so I decided I would step out and check Tod Creek Flats while I was at it.  My intention was to quickly scan over the flats and then continue on to Mount Newton Valley to see what I could dig up there.  In reality, I spent around an hour and a half at Tod Creek Flats and had very little time for birding elsewhere.

When I got out of the car at the Red Barn, I just grabbed my binoculars and wandered down through the opening leading to the flats.  A couple minutes later, I found myself heading back to the car to get my camera because a Swamp Sparrow popped up along the shoreline in the weedy vegetation.  As I made my way back to where I had initially seen the Swamp, I noticed there were several sparrows in the weedy vegetation.  The clumps of rushes and weedy vegetation must provide a good combination of food and cover because there were a half dozen Song Sparrows and, as I was very surprised to find, at least five Swamp Sparrows!

Swamp Sparrows are found in low numbers every winter - usually it's just one or two at Swan Lake and another at either Viaduct Flats, Panama Flats, Rithet's Bog, or perhaps somewhere near Martindale Flats.  This year has been exceptional for them so far: one at Rocky Point, three at Swan Lake, three at the Cowichan Bay Dock Rd., and one at Panama Flats.  Add the five I had today at Tod Creek Flats and you can see we have a pretty good total locally.

In all my years of birding in the Victoria area, this sighting is easily the best for Swamp Sparrows.  There have been occasions where I've seen two individuals at one location, but having five in one small stretch of shoreline was incredible!  I may have to go down there again to see if I can determine whether my count was low.

Hopefully anyone who has had trouble catching up with Swamp Sparrows locally can head on down to Tod Creek Flats and see at least one or two of the relatively cooperative bunch.

This stretch of weedy shoreline at Tod Creek Flats hosted at least five Swamp Sparrows
One of the five Swamp Sparrows, most of which were being uncharacteristically cooperative for views

Another Swamp Sparrow perched on rushes and calling at Tod Creek Flats today