Notes From a Northwestern Ontario Backyard – February 2018

Hello again!

It sure has been a COLD winter up here, more like the winters of my youth growing up here in Manitouwadge. We’ve hit the -40’s quite a number of times and spent much of the winter in the -30’s C with really vicious wind chills sometimes feeling near -50!  We’ve also had a lot of sunshine this winter, quite the contrast from recent winters where clouds have moved in during November and not cleared until March! We have a fair amount of snow too so yup, it’s like a good old fashioned winter.

In case you’re wondering what -40 might look like, here’s a shot of it one morning from my office window.

A -40 morning view from my office window.

Considering how cold it’s been, I’m surprised at how long it took for my feeders to finally become busy. Activity in the yard didn’t really pick up until well into January.  That’s when numbers of Pine Grosbeaks finally started to increase. That’s also when Common Redpolls & some Evening Grosbeaks started showing up in the yard.  Normally by now, I would be counting over 100+ Redpolls at my feeders along with 50+ Evening Grosbeaks.  I’m nowhere near those numbers this season. For this Great Backyard Bird Count weekend, I tallied a high of 12 Evening Grosbeaks (12!!) and 40 Redpolls with about 35 Pine Grosbeaks. Nice … but very low!

Pair of Pine Grosbeaks, male in front.

Handsome male Evening Grosbeak, fluffed up in the cold.

Adorable male Common Redpoll. The females do not have the red on the chest.

Speaking of Pine Grosbeaks, I’ve had a couple of visits from this lovely fellow. Notice the white patches on the male Pine Grosbeak on the front of the platform feeder. He has a condition called ‘leucism’. It means he has a lack of pigment in some of his feathers, leaving him with white spots where he should normally be red or gray. I nicknamed him Sparkle because he looks like he’s sparkling when the sun hits him. 🙂

Front left: a leucistic male Pine Grosbeak. I also saw a male Evening Grosbeak with this condition earlier this winter but have not seen him since.

Another busy place in the yard has been the bird bath. Contrary to popular belief, it is not a warm bath. The water is kept JUST warm enough to prevent freezing. In extreme temperatures of -30’s and colder, much of the rim of the bath WILL freeze, leaving an open hole about 6″ in diameter for the birds to drink. They all seem to greatly value the available water here since everything around the region is frozen solid. The Evening Grosbeaks in particular seem to love the bird bath the most but it gets used by most visitors to the yard.

A Gray Jay getting ready to leave the bird bath after a drink.

A female Pine Grosbeak on the icy rim of the bird bath in near -40 weather.

A female Evening Grosbeak with a drop of water on the underside of her beak.

The frozen rim of the bird bath is like a communal meeting spot for Evening Grosbeaks!

Blue Jays too value a drink of water in mid winter.

Some Woodpeckers have been visiting the peanut butter log. I sometimes see a pair of Hairy Woodpeckers or a pair of Downy Woodpeckers throughout the yard.

A female Hairy Woodpecker on the peanut butter log with a female Pine Grosbeak on the platform feeder.

A male Downy Woodpecker in my Crabapple Tree

A female Downy Woodpecker in the same Crabapple tree.

Other visitors to the yard recently include:

The little female Ruffed Grouse. She will tolerate a Blue Jay on ‘her’ feeder only for a few seconds before she’ll fly off.

Starlings. At one point, I had 10 at the feeders. Lately, only 3. One of them has a leg injury of some sort & is alone much of the time.

4 species in this webcam snap: Redpolls, Pine Grosbeak, Black Capped Chickadee & Red Breasted Nuthatch. 🙂

A lone Junco has spent the whole winter here, visiting my feeders almost daily. Here, he’s with a Chickadee.

This last photo shows who I believe is the culprit in the demise of the Brown Thrasher: the Northern Shrike. I’ve only actually seen the Shrike twice this season but I’ve suspected since December that he’s been around the neighbourhood. He has come in to land in my pine tree twice now and he clears the yard immediately every time, for about 20 minutes. I do miss the Thrasher terribly but I cannot hold it against the Shrike for doing what comes naturally as a hunter. Everyone needs to eat to survive.  He sure is a handsome bird and he’s as welcome in my yard as any other feathered critter.

Handsome Northern Shrike in one of my pine trees.

So, as I mentioned earlier, this past weekend was the Great Backyard Bird Count. I wasn’t able to get out & chase any birds to count as we are still exceptionally busy with our reno. I was, however, able to watch my yard & nearby neighbourhood. My tally is about 14 species including a big surprise this morning: a fly-over sighting of a Pileated Woodpecker. Awesome end to my count!

Happy sightings!

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Summer flash back continued – Ruddy Ducks of Summer

Well, my dearth of local Canadian birding activity has continued for another month, but the reasons are much more positive than last month: I have just returned from a 10-day trip to Costa Rica where I had a wonderful time seeing & photographing some of the astounding array of wildlife this marvellous country has to offer, including some wintering migrants that we shall soon see return to Canada in the next few months. As such, for this post I’ve again delved into my (extensive) catalog of unpublished images from 2017 and landed upon this image from a Calgary summer morning of a Ruddy Duck drake performing its wonderful ‘bubble bath’ courtship routine where it churns up the water with its feet to create bubbles…I’ve seen this display many times now, but it never gets old for me & you’re in for a treat if you’ve yet to see it! Hopefully this pic conveys a little of what the routine looks like & also makes you feel a little warmer as we again head into another deep freeze period here in this particularly cold and snowy Alberta winter of 2017/18!

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Southern Ontario’s Winter Bounty

I had hoped to get out to photograph some of the different ducks overwintering on Lake Ontario at some point over the last couple of weeks, but a number of pressing work commitments have kept me pretty much chained to my desk. I’ve no regrets, since the back yard feeder has been a real hub of activity.

The January weather turned out to be quite a mixed bag, as a mild patch melted the snow and gave us about two weeks of quite pleasant weather. But the reprieve was short-lived, as another big dump of the white stuff at the end of the month thrust us squarely back into the depths of winter. Watching the birds adapt to these variable conditions has been quite interesting.

The downy woodpeckers have winter completely figured out, enjoying peanuts on milder days and the suet block when it gets really cold. Of course, the woodpecker picnic cylinder is always a big hit in any weather.

I have to say, I really enjoy the downies. Their antics are quite hilarious. We have several visiting our feeders, males and females. They’ve just begun playing peek-a-boo with one another, so they seem to think spring can’t be too far off. We also have at least two hairy woodpeckers now visiting. They look just like downies but are at least twice as big, and with much more substantial beaks. I’ve taken to calling the male “Prince Hairy” … his female friend of course is now “Meghan.” I’ll have to get pictures of them. For now, the downy gang keep me amused by hanging out in the tree just outside my office window, peeping away merrily for hours on end.

The chickadees are also enjoying the feeder. They’re very quick visitors, they dart in, grab a seed, then fly away with it to enjoy it in a tree where there’s less traffic. It’s really cute how they hold the little seed in their feet while they peck away at it. Sometimes I wonder if they burn more energy darting to and fro than they get from the food, but they seem to be doing well so it must all work out.

Of course our goldfinches and juncos are also enjoying the full feeders. The house finches, too.

Winter also brings other visitors to the area. This massive red-tailed hawk was sitting in a tree one morning. It was a very long way off, yet still looked enormous as it scoured the neighborhood for squirrels.

Our resident Coopers hawks and sharp-shinned hawks have also been quite active lately. There are at least three different individuals that we see around the feeder … two different sharpies, and a Coopers hawk that looks similar but is quite a bit larger in size. Where the Sharp-shinned hawks aren’t much bigger than a mourning dove, and normally chase after the sparrows, chickadees and finches, the Cooper’s hawk is more the size of a crow, and often eats the mourning doves. It’s more than robust enough to easily fly away carrying one in its talons. But it isn’t above eating mid-sized birds like starlings too, as I found out one mild morning toward the end of the month.

It’s unfortunate for the starling, but the hawk has to eat too and nature isn’t always kind. Even so, I’m always thrilled to see the hawks, they really are quite remarkable birds.

And just like that, another blast of winter arrived and buried everything under yet another load of snow.

Happily, my work load seems to be lightening up as we enter February, so I still hope to get down to Lake Ontario to take photos of the visiting waterfowl. Hopefully I’ll have some to share by this time next month. Till then, happy birding.

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Of Polite Patrons, Bandits, Gleaners and Hunters

All through the year, our backyard is busy with birds and other little creatures.  This past month has been no different, with much of the activity centred around the feeders.

The cardinals are regular visitors, the male so blazing red against the dreary winter backdrop that he stops me short every time I walk past a window.  The male and female always appear together, but dine one at a time, the other waiting by in the apple tree.

Chickadees, juncos, goldfinches, and the occasional blue jay also frequent the feeders.  A resident flock of mourning doves will descend on the snow beneath the feeders, or alight in the branches of the sumac, all plumped up and soaking up the sun, or patiently waiting for a turn at the niger seed feeder.

A beautiful little cottontail rabbit has made our backyard home as well, and sometimes gleans beneath the feeders, along with the squirrels.

The suet feeders draw downy and hairy woodpeckers, and the white-breasted nuthatch, as well as some bolder bandits.

But it hasn’t been just seed and suet eaters this month.  I looked out one day to see a sharp-shinned hawk in the top of the apple tree, dining on some unfortunate bird.  The hawk stayed for close to an hour.  When it finished eating, it flew over to another branch, still clutching the leftovers and sat fluffed in the sun for a while.  The next time I looked out, it was gone with the carcass and all.

As always, ’til next month, happy birding.


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Are you in the GBBC?

Show how much you care about birds by participating in the 21stannual Great Backyard Bird Count! Simply count birds for at least 15 minutes on one or more of the count days (February 16-19, 2018) and report your sightings online.

Around the globe, tens of thousands of volunteers – of all ages and birding skill levels – will participate. If wintery weather keeps you indoors, you can count the birds outside your window! This free, fun, family-friendly event provides opportunities to learn about birds and connect with nature, while supporting bird conservation. To learn more, visit the Great Backyard Bird Count website or email Canadian coordinator Kerrie Wilcox at

black oystercatcherYou may also be interested in the Great Backyard Bird Count photo contest. In 2017, Hui Sim of British Columbia, Canada was awarded first place in the Behaviour Category for an image of a Black Oystercatcher.

This year, we will once again be running our Bird Studies Canada Great Backyard Bird Count Story Contest. We want to hear about your exciting, funny, and heartwarming experiences! Click here for details.

The Great Backyard Bird Count is a joint project of Audubon and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology with Canadian partner Bird Studies Canada, and is supported in Canada by Armstrong Bird Food and Wild Birds Unlimited.

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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!

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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!


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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!

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