Notes From a Northwestern Ontario Backyard – January 2018

Hello and welcome to a brand new year! I hope everyone had a peaceful & enjoyable holiday season.

Unfortunately, I have to start off my first post of 2018 with some bad news: the Brown Thrasher that was visiting my feeders throughout December has sadly perished. We believe he was the victim of a Northern Shrike.

My last photo of the Brown Thrasher on Dec. 31’17. We believe it was killed the next day.

I had been watching the Thrasher on the webcam from my in-laws’ house at camp on New Year’s Eve and he was on the feeder up until dusk. That was the last I saw of him. He never showed up the next day (New Year’s Day) & has not been seen since. On January 2nd, however, my husband stepped outside and immediately found this tuft of feathers in the snow right outside our door:

The tuft was about 2.5″ in diameter & each feather was about 2″ long by a 1/2″ wide. We tried our best to justify it being anything else but then someone posted this photo of Thrasher feathers and that was pretty much definitive:

As you can see, the feathers in the bottom centre are a perfect match for the feathers we found outside. My heart was broken with this discovery as we had been rooting so hard for the Thrasher to survive our brutal temperatures this winter when he was supposed to be in Florida or Texas. As this next photo shows, he had already been managing in frigid temperatures quite well!

Brown Thrasher with a Chickadee, on my feeders at -40.

Everyone who watches the webcam regularly dearly misses the Thrasher, almost as much as I do, I suspect. He was definitely the Rock Star of my Project FeederWatch webcam season. RIP, handsome bird!

My feeders have been exceptionally quiet this winter, overall. Redpolls are 98% missing and have only visited my feeders twice so far this season, only for a minute or two each time.

Common Redpoll taking off

Pine Grosbeak & Evening Grosbeak numbers are very low, especially the Evenings. My highest count of Pines so far has been 18 and for Evenings, it’s only been 9! I’m used to having 20 to 30 of each in winter.  Another odd thing is that I’m not seeing ANY female Evening Grosbeaks. Haven’t seen one since about November. What gives with that??

Male (red) & female Pine Grosbeaks with a male Evening Grosbeak.

Male Evening Grosbeaks. Where the heck are the females??

I do have this lovely fellow coming around once in a while: a leucistic male Pine Grosbeak. He has less red pigment than normal, leaving him with white blotches. I had a male Evening Grosbeak very similar to this earlier this winter but have not seen him in quite some time.

Leucistic male Pine Grosbeak (right) with ‘normal’ male Pine.

Even with the low numbers overall, I have a few other species that visit almost daily, including:

Red Breasted Nuthatches (2 come around but only 1 is in this photo)

This lovely Raven who loves it when I put out 12 grain bagels for his breakfast!

Anywhere from 4 to 10 Blue Jays come around. These 2 were particularly frosted in the -47C wind chills we were getting.

1 of 2 Ruffed Grouse that I suspect are visiting. I never see them together but 1 seems to be quite a bit smaller than the other. Male & female, likely.

My beloved Gray Jays. A pair has been visiting the feeder all winter, snacking on seeds, peanuts & peanut butter (in the birch log).

To end this month, here are a couple of photos I took recently. It’s been much too cold to take my camera outside (let alone ME going outside!!) ….. we were having temperatures of -40C (base temp) with wind chills hitting -50 in the region!! …. so these shots are through windows.

I have a pair of Hairy Woodpeckers visiting sporadically. This is the male on the hydro pole outside of my back gate.

This Junco didn’t migrate with the rest of his flock & has been around my feeders all winter.

Sometimes, the Grouse will roost in my spruce & pine trees to snooze the afternoon away! She’ll come out to the platform feeder at dusk for a final snack before flying off to roost somewhere safer at night.

Gray Jays are so incredibly photogenic!! This one was in my crab apple tree.

This is what a Black Capped Chickadee looks like at -40C! Tough little critters!!

Until next time, thanks for reading & stay warm!

Posted in Bird Canada | 5 Comments

Summer flash back – Birding Alberta’s Dinosaur Provincial Park

Birding outings this past month for me, with frustrating head colds either side of Christmas and local temps hovering around -20 celsius for extended periods, have been both limited and unfruitful! As such, my short post this month takes us back to the warmer weather of last summer during our annual camping trip to Dinosaur Provincial Park in the ‘Badlands’ of southern Alberta. My birding highlight of the weekend was some nice close-up views of a very vocal Rock Wren – a bird that has, for the most part, successfully eluded me during the past 5 years’ trips to Dino Park:

Watching this wren spring from hoodoo to hoodoo among the coulees, singing frequently, was a delightful experience and the ealy morning light was fantastic as well:

I look forward to hopefully seeing more Rock Wrens again this coming summer!


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Winter in Southern Ontario

How many times have we heard the expression be careful what you wish for?

Last time I wrote an update for this blog  I was lamenting the lack of migrating birds and the blah fall weather. I even said I was looking forward to a change. Well, we got it. Even as I hit the publish button on that last post, the snow had already began to fall and southern Ontario was getting its first real taste of winter. By the following morning, the whole place had turned white, and the mercury appeared to have left the thermometer for much warmer climes.

I’m generally not a fan of winter. But true enough, the frigid weather brought some changes to the feeder.

First up was to say hello to the winter crop of goldfinches. It seems that the finches who reside in our garden all summer leave in September. We go from seeing them all the time to not seeing any at all for a few weeks. Then, suddenly, the yard is full of them again. These “winter finches” hang around – often in enormous numbers – till perhaps April, when we hit another finch void before our “summer” birds return.

The cardinals don’t seem to mind the chilly weather one bit. If anything, they seem to revel in the lack of blackbirds.

Dark-eyed juncos have re-appeared in the yard after a long absence. I love the way these cheery little birds dark about in and out from under the plants.

The ground crew doesn’t seem to mind the snow, even if it does make foraging for dropped peanuts a bit tougher.

We were surprised to find a flock of eight robins at the bird bath one afternoon. The silly things were happily splashing about in the -12 temperatures. We’ve since seen them a few more times. It’s very odd to see robins here at this time of year.

Our resident downy woodpeckers like the cold. They like the suet blocks even more.

For the resident sparrows, the arrival of new friends has been a bit of a mixed blessing. Good, in that there are new birds to hang out with. Bad, in that some of these new arrivals are showing up hungry. You have to get to the feeder early now, or risk losing out on the morning’s buffet. Late arrivals are never happy arrivals.

So here we are now, in the depths of winter, and yes, it’s a nice change from the routine of fall. In a week or two I’m hoping to get out to photograph some of the ducks wintering on Lake Ontario. In spite of the cold, I’m looking forward to it, and to saying hello to old friends once again.

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Count on the Chickadees

You can always count on the Chickadees.  When it’s minus 20, 25, 30… and the other birds are all snugged away out of sight, the Chickadees remain.  Feathers fluffed, and calling cheerily, they flit busily about in search of the calories they shivered away the night before.

“Through the coldest, most blustery, or the wettest and rawest of days, if a Chickadee is to be found, it will be ‘chickadeeing’ as cheerfully as in the brightest weather.  A discouraged Chickadee is yet to be seen by the writer,” wrote P.A. Taverner in his Birds of Canada (1947).

It being not quite so cold on Saturday morning, at only 17 below, we went out for a walk with a pocketful of seed to share with these resilient little  fluffballs.

Stay warm out there.

Wishing you all a Happy New Year and lots of birds in 2018!


Posted in Winter Birding in Canada | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Notes From a Northwestern Ontario Backyard – December 2017

Hello again!  My deepest apologies for being so sporadic in my monthly postings. This kitchen rebuild/renovation my husband and I have been working on since last March has taken up nearly all of our time. I will sincerely try to post more in 2018.

I have to say it’s been quite an exciting winter in my yard so far.  I have a special visitor to my feeders: a lovely Brown Thrasher. I first saw it on November 10 & 11. Then it disappeared for 3 weeks.

Second sighting of the Brown Thrasher in my High Bush Cranberry Shrub on Nov. 11’17

It’s extremely rare to see this species around here at ANY time of year but in winter, it should be around Florida! This one showed up in my backyard again on December 2 and has been here every day since.  Something obviously went wrong in its migration so I will do what I can to help it survive the bitter cold we’ve been getting. It has already handledtemperatures in the low -30’s C.  The Thrasher discovered my platform feeder and now gives the Blue Jays a run for their money. It will chase EVERY bird off the feeder and take all the food for itself! It’s quite entertaining to watch. It seems to have a preference for peanut hearts and raisins so I cater to it with those foods to help it along. Fingers crossed it continues to do this well.

Brown Thrasher in the flowerbed under the feeders

Wayward Brown Thrasher on the ground under my feeders.

Another special visitor to my yard recently was a solitary Snow Bunting.  It only stayed for about 3 days before moving on and hopefully catching up with its flock.

Snow Bunting nibbling on seed under my platform feeder

Pretty little Snow Bunting in my pine tree.

I’ve had Grouse coming around the yard again this fall & winter but not as steadily as they have in past seasons.  It’s been just 1 Ruffed Grouse most of the time but I have seen a pair of them in the yard only once.

Ruffed Grouse in my ornamental Crab Apple Tree

Grouse visiting with Santa on the platform feeder! (Webcam Snap)

I’ve had both Downy & Hairy Woodpeckers coming around.  They like the peanuts and the suet/peanut butter log that is hanging over the feeders.

Female Hairy Woodpecker

Male Downy Woodpecker

A flock of 10 Starlings has been around since November. They come to the feeders a few times per week.  I love their plumage!

2 of the 10 Starlings that come around a few times per week.

A pair of my beloved Gray Jays comes around sporadically. Last winter, I had 3 Gray Jays visiting. I think I can safely assume that the third one was that year’s juvenile and it was eventually sent packing by its parents to find its own territory. This season so far, I have only seen two.

Beautiful pair of Gray Jays

Gray Jay in its element: snow!

I have about 10 Blue Jays in my area. I normally see 5 to 6 at a time and it can get incredibly noisy! Because of the Blue Jays, I suspect I have a Northern Shrike in the neighbourhood. They will start SCREAMING like banshees out of the blue and all other birds will instantly disappear! I’m hoping to actually see the Shrike eventually this winter.

Blue Jay

It’s been a very quiet winter so far for Grosbeaks.  Pine Grosbeaks are around the neighbourhood constantly but the most I’ve had in the yard so far this season is 18. The norm right now is about 6! Very low. Evening Grosbeaks are hardly around the yard at all right now.  The most I’ve seen so far this winter is 7. Pretty amazing when I think of the years where I had over 150! I dearly miss the Grosbeaks at the feeders.

Male Pine Grosbeak

Pine Grosbeaks getting a drink at the birdbath.

Male Pine & male Evening Grosbeaks

Up until last week, I still had 3 Dark Eyed Juncos coming around.  As of today, I only have 1. This is quite late in the season to still see them here.

Dark Eyed Junco with Black Capped Chickadee

I thought this photo below was a neat combination shot:

Brown Thrasher with Black Capped Chickadee (on base of lighthouse feeder) and Red Breasted Nuthatch

And to end this month, I’m sure people are wondering: Where are the Redpolls? Well ….. I’m wondering too!  I had a dozen of them finally show up on my feeder last week but they only were only here that one day and have not returned. When I’m out in the woods, I see flocks of them so I know they are definitely around.  They are just still getting their food from natural sources instead of feeders. That may change as the season goes on and the snow deepens. We shall see.

3 of the 12 Redpolls that visited my feeders for just one afternoon last week.

So that’s a quick catch-up from my area.  Say a little prayer for the Thrasher that it continues to handle the winter weather & I’ll do my best to keep it fed & sheltered.

Merry Christmas, Happy New Year & Happy Holidays to all … thanks for reading!

Posted in Bird Canada | 12 Comments

Southern Ontario’s Waiting Game

For many children, the last few weeks leading up to Christmas are a period when time stands still. Or at the very least, it seems to move a lot slower than usual. Weeks feel like months and days feel like weeks in that all-too slow march up to the big day when the presents are unwrapped and new toys enjoyed.

Time seems to be running in slow motion for the birds too, at least here in southern Ontario.

Last month I wrote about our continuing bird vacuum, and how the up-and-down fall weather seemed to be playing havoc with bird migrations. With November having given way to December and the first snow only beginning to fall today, time indeed seems to be standing still as new arrivals come slowly to the feeder and old friends are still hanging about.

The blue jays continue to come and go, more in a steady trickle than the torrent we’ve seen in the past. You see a few, you see none, you see more again. Different birds, with slight variations in their markings. Yet they all share a singular love for peanuts.

The resident downy woodpeckers have been busy caching peanuts and other snacks.

And the mourning doves continue hanging around, although we’re seeing fewer of them every day. It’s not just the falling temperatures – a telltale pile of feathers that Laura found in the yard made it apparent our resident Cooper’s hawks – who we haven’t seen in a while – are still in the neighbourhood. The other doves didn’t stick around long after that.

Perhaps the surest sign that fall is giving way to winter is in the arrival of growing numbers of finches. We had no goldfinches to speak of a month ago, now there are many. And house finches are also suddenly abundant.

With all that red in the trees, the cardinals have some new competition. It will be interesting to see the first sunny morning with fresh snow, when the cardinals all seem to radiate colour like they glow in the dark.

Perhaps the snow will finally clear out the last of the starlings. There are so many of them we have had to keep safflower seeds in the main feeder, since they gobble down the sunflower chips so fast … they literally empty the feeder in a few hours. A few of them have even become proficient at hanging upside-down and eating the woodpecker picnic cakes. I don’t mean just a brief bites either, there are a few birds that hang inverted for five or six minutes at a go. If nothing else, starlings are adaptable. And smart.

I write this in the late evening, and it’s now snowing like mad. Perhaps a fresh landscape will bring more fresh birds, and an end to the sensation of time standing still. It’s been a great fall, but I’m ready for a change.

Posted in Bird Canada | 5 Comments

My Winter Birding Wish List

One of the things that I love so much about bird-watching is that it is a year-round hobby, and there are different birds to see in every season.  As winter approaches, I am already thinking about the birds I hope to see.

My wish list is as follows:

  • Pine Siskins
  • Redpolls
  • Snow Buntings
  • Bald Eagle
  • Snowy Owl
  • Evening Grosbeak
  • Crossbills

Some, like the Pine Siskins and the Redpolls, are fairly regular winter visitors to our yard, but that makes their appearance each year no less exciting, and a year without their presence would be disappointing indeed.  These are photos taken over the last few years.

Common Redpoll

Pine Siskin

Pine Siskin

Pine Siskins

Common Redpolls

Common Redpolls

Pine Siskins

Pine Siskins

Snow Buntings are also fairly regular winter visitors, but my sightings are always of the flock from afar, or while driving.  I am hoping for a closer look at these lovely birds this year.

The Bald Eagle has become a regular winter sighting for me, and after a three year streak it would be disappointing not to see it again.

Winter after winter, the Snowy Owl has thus far eluded me (despite road trips purposely in search of it!).  And then just last week, my brother saw one while at work not far from home – maybe this will be the year!

The Evening Grosbeak and the Crossbill are my wild hopes, as I have yet to ever see either beyond the pages of my bird guide, and they have been on my wish list for a long, long time.  But who knows what this year will bring!

What’s on your winter birding wish list?

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Winter Birding in Calgary and the Foothills in Pictures – Part 1

I know it’s another month until winter ‘officially’ begins here in Calgary, but the snow and sub-zero temps have already arrived and the winter birding in Calgary has begun in earnest.

I like the coming of winter, not so much for the temperature, but because it means I can chill out a little: I don’t have to get up at the crack of dawn to see birds as it isn’t even properly light out until 9am, plus we get some birds that only visit in the winter.

But before all that begins, there are still a few last gasps of fall weather. Seeking to take advantage of the last remaining patches of open ponds, I headed down to Carburn Park to see if I could relocate a Western Grebe that had been reported. A quick scan of the main pond revealed I was in luck!:

However, I had to wait a good 30 minutes for the Grebe to come even remotely close to the shoreline where I was sitting:

and then I had only a minute or two before the bird retreated to the centre of the pond when some dog walkers came by.

I also managed to get some colourful Buffleheads swim by at long distance…these guys always look particularly photogenic on yellow fall reflections:

And never one to waste a ‘golden’ opportunity, I spent some time shooting a big gaggle of American Wigeons:

A pleasing fall image of a Downy Woodpecker was a nice finale to my visit:

A week after this visit the temperatures nose-dived and when I returned a fortnight later the ponds had all completely frozen over.

Deep in K-Country…

A trip out west a week later to Kananaskis did not yield an awful lot of wildlife, but I did manage to see some characteristic birds of this area including some Spruce Grouse hens on a shady roadside corner:

And the always-attractive Pine Grosbeaks which seemed to be scattered throughout K-Country in good numbers this day:

The following weekend I paid a visit to some local inner city parks to see if I could find some Crossbills, but alas my luck was not in and I had to be content with a constantly-on-the-move Brown Creeper:

My enthusiasm still high, following regular reports of a Northern Pygmy Owl in Fish Creek Park, I decided to pay a visit there and see what I could find.

Fish Creek Park – Winter 2017

A nice surprise, in the form of a Townsend’s Solitaire, was found in amongst a large flock of late-staying American Robins:

As I walked along the frozen creek, I heard the rattling call of a Kingfisher and with a bit of looking I managed to locate the bird, albeit at some distance:Kingfisher Tim Hopwood

I’ve yet to meet a Kingfisher that tolerates people well and this one was no exception, so this was the best I could manage on this occasion:

But my birding luck was not yet done…as I was wandering along a path deep in the park, a Pygmy Owl kindly flew across directly in front of me and perched close by!:

As I maneuvered to get the sun behind me, I managed a quick shot before the owl flew to another perch:

…before being chased off by chickadees to yet another perch where it stayed for a minute and appeared all set to hunt when a Hairy Woodpecker spied the owl and proceeded to land very close and raise a heck of a racket…that in turn attracted what seemed like half the park’s small bird population – chickadees, nuthatches, Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers, magpies, Blue Jays…even the kingfisher did a fly-by! Well that was enough for the little owl and I last saw it flying off deep into the forest. A great end to an enjoyable weekend of birding!

Posted in Bird Canada | 3 Comments

Southern Ontario’s Continuing Bird Vacuum

The unusually variable weather pattern that has characterized autumn 2017 in southern Ontario has continued on without too much change. Although the days are growing shorter and the nights are getting long, bird migrations – at least in our area – seem to continue in more of a trickle than a torrent.

Where last year we saw large numbers of blue jays at the feeder, this year we’re continuing to see them in pairs or small family groups – still no flocks of 20 or more birds as we’ve seen before. And while the first dark-eyed junco made its appearance a few days ago, even goldfinches seem to be stopping by only singularly, or at best, in pairs. By this time last year, it was quite normal to see every peg on both thistle feeders fully occupied, with another dozen or more finches waiting their turn in the trees nearby. This year, even if they are there we would have trouble seeing them anyway, them as most of our trees are still thick with leaves. Very strange indeed.

Our new tulip tree is still almost fully leafed.

The lack of migrant birds has let the sparrows get far too comfortable at the feeders.

Mourning doves seem to enjoy the warmer autumn weather.

Even the plants seem confused by the up and down weather.

Most of the grackles cleared out weeks ago. Then this one turned up. We’re not sure if it’s a straggler, or it got fooled by the warm weather and came back!

The first of the winter goldfinches have finally begun to arrive. But we’re still only seeing them in singles or pairs. The big groups still haven’t materialized.

Cardinals seem to be enjoying the warm sun while it lasts.

Forgot to fill the feeder one day. This blue jay was not impressed.

The downy woodpeckers weren’t impressed either.

Fortunately they had lots of peanuts and Woodpecker Picnic to munch on in the interim.

We’re  supposed to see some more seasonal conditions over the next week or so. Although I’ve enjoyed the warm autumn, part of me is actually looking forward to some colder nights and blustery breezes – if only because they will finally bring us some new migrants to admire.

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Of Little Kings and Pretty Hermits

I have come to count on seeing the tiny kinglet upon October’s arrival.  For being such busy, flitty little birds, they are remarkably punctual.  I write a monthly bird column in a local newspaper, and chose the Ruby-crowned Kinglet as my subject for October.  The day after the issue with my column came out, the”Little King” itself appeared in my backyard.

I love the kinglet’s tiny size – such a giveaway as to its identity even at a distance, and even though it hides its ruby crown.

This year, I realized that I have another punctual October visitor: the Hermit Thrush.  It passes through quite silent; indeed, it utters not a sound.  Nor does it draw attention to its presence with busy movements and short, flitting flights.  One must simply expect, and wait, and watch for this unobtrusive hermit’s arrival.

But, as with most things that need waiting for, the lovely Hermit Thrush is worth the waiting.  Particularly that moment when it turns and flashes its reddish tail, confirming its identity.

See who’s flying through at the bottom of this photo?

My November sightings are usually more varied and of birds rather less punctual, so I’ll just have to wait and see who drops in – but I’ll be sure to let you know!

‘Til next month,

Happy Birding!



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