Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Birdlooking in the Canadian Winter

Birdlooking? You did read that correctly. In the middle of the winter in Canada, we spend most of our time looking for birds and little of our time actually watching the birds. That is if you don't count the waterfowl on Lake Ontario. Besides the geese and mallards down on the big lake, you can take long walks through the park, woodlot, or forest and nary hear, let alone see, a bird. Where are all the birds?

Well, this is a story about migration. Many of the birds are living it up in warmer weather somewhere south having left us 'birdwatchers' wandering through the snow and ice looking for their fool-hardy kin. It was during one of these birdless walks that I arrived at a bright idea: There must be birds from farther north that arrive in southern Canada but go no further. These "Arctic" birds leave their summer homes in exotic places like Baffin Island and Nunavut and arrive in Kingston or Waterloo or Peterborough and think, "wow this is so much warmer, why fly another couple of hundred miles to someplace where it doesn't snow so much?"

There must be a few of them, and these birds could hold the key to me besting Damon on the year long bird count competition. You see, these are birds that Damon won't have a chance to see. Either he comes to Ontario from Pennsylvania for a mid-winter visit (probability<0.05 on this one) or he goes to the Arctic in the summer (no doubt that he would have a hard time selling that concept to his wife). Ok, so how many of these birds are there and who are they.

To identify these birds, I looked through my Nat Geo bird book and studied the range maps of all of the birds. I selected birds that were: 1) migratory and 2) whose most southern range is north of southern PA (which is where Damon lives). I am sure some would quibble about the ranges but this is more of an art than a science. Here are the results:

1) Long-tailed duck (Clangula hyemalis). Well, its close and Damon could probably see one. Especially seeing that their winter location is missing from the map. But it was the only duck that came close to qualifying. Stupid quackers must like cold weather. 
2) Gyrfalcon (Falco rusticolus). The largest falcon in the world. And it likes to spend its winters in Canada.
3) Glaucous gull (Larus hyperboreus). Yeah, I know it probably winters as far south as PA. But why doesn't the Cornell map show its southern range? Weird, I know.
4) Snowy owl (Bubo scandiacus). Ah, a beautiful bird to say the least. And not just because of its ability to deliver mail to magical fugitives. I know the map shows it might take a detour into the US but really what's the chances Damon will see a snowy owl. I don't think they even have snow in PA. Hell, what are the chances I will see a snowy owl!
5) Northern hawk owl (Surnia ulula). Talk about an identity crisis. Are you a hawk or an owl? Figure it out bird and then I will start looking for you! I know the map doesn't show as being migratory but it tends to move somewhat more south in the winter. 

6) Northern shrike (Lanius excubitor). This is another one of those birds that Damon might see but southern PA is very close to the shrike's most southern range limit. It is definitely a northern bird...just see its name.
Map via Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology

7) Bohemian waxwing (Bombycilla garrulus). This is another beautiful bird and one that doesn't wander too far south. Pretty sure Damon won't see any of these in PA.
Map via Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology

8) Snow bunting (Plectrophenax nivalis). Another close one here. It is a 'snow' bunting. So it must like cold. It does get south into PA but not much further. Good chance of seeing it Canada, but not so much in PA.
Map via Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology

AND... that's it. A grand total of 8 birds that somewhat fit my criteria. There are probably some non-migratory, only in Canada birds but I will save them for a later post. 8 birds that I might see that Damon probably won't. For my plan to work, I still have to track these birds down in the middle of the Canadian winter, and I am going to take a guess here that I won't be seeing a gyrfalcon or a northern hawk owl. Anyway, I still think it was a good idea but I doubt that my 2 or 3 Canadian migrants will make the difference in the competition at the end of the year. All in all this doesn't matter too much to me because seeing a snowy owl and northern shrike will be something that I can lord over Damon for at least another couple more months. Now does anyone have suggestions on where I can find a gyrfalcon?

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