Monday, April 21, 2014

Winter Birding in Ontario

I haven't contributed to the Year of Birds lately. This is not to say I haven't been birding; I just haven't had much to say about my winter birding. It struck me, though, that there are some strategies to winter birding in a northern location, like Peterborough, Ontario that I could share. If you want to see birds knee-deep in snow in the middle of winter, where do you go and what do you do? Here are my observations of winter birding in Peterborough:

1. Find a bird feeder. This is an obvious one. Bird feeders in mid-winter attract a lot of birds and they usually are very easy to see. I have feeder in my backyard but its not very active so I look for feeders around town. Get over any qualms you might have about stopping in front of someone's house and gawking at the mass of birds in their front yard (but you should probably hold off on tromping through their backyard). You will see birds. In Peterborough, these birds would likely include Black-capped Chickadees, Northern Cardinal, Dark-eyed Juncos, American Goldfinch, European Starlings, Blue Jays, House Finches, Morning Doves, White-breasted Nuthatch, and Downy Woodpeckers. You might also see House Sparrows and American Tree Sparrows. During some years, you could get a Pine Siskin or a crossbill. A good dozen species this way.

2. Go to the river. The Otonobee River flows past Peterborough and in the winter it doesn't freeze over completely. The patches of open water are where you will probably find Herring Gulls, Mallards and Common Goldeneye. There are also Common Mergansers that are common. Besides these birds, you might see a Red-Breasted Merganser, Canada Goose, Buffleheads, a grebe or some other less common waterfowl, or maybe one of three less common gull species? There were two Hooded Mergansers and a Green-Winged Teal seen close to Peterborough this year and a Mute Swan appeared for a few days before expiring on the edge of the river's ice. Altogether with some effort, you could add another dozen or so river birds to your list.

3. Go for a hike in the north woods. And by north woods, I mean anywhere in the boreal forest north of Peterborough. My choice has recently been Petroglyphs Provincial Park. It is closed to road traffic in the winter, which makes for nice snowshoeing and birding. You will probably pick up a Raven and more Blue Jays in the park. There are also Hairy Woodpeckers, Downy Woodpeckers, and Pileated Woodpeckers to be found. Add in a Red-breasted Nuthatch, Brown Creeper, Black-capped Chickadees and you have a nice selection of birds to see. You might also see a Red-winged Crossbill or some other more northerly bird. There are also occasional reports of Black-backed Woodpeckers, which apparently respond to Barred Owl calls. Here you can see another 5-10 new species.

Trekking through the snowy forest.
4. Watch for raptors and go owling. The raptors are usually seen while you are driving around in the country. But sometimes you can see a Cooper's or Sharp-shinned Hawk in town. I can't figure out how you would seek these birds out, but frequent places where eBird reports put them is a good start. For example, there is a Merlin that likes Peterborough's Little Lake Cemetery. You could be more pro-active and go for a late-night drive looking for owls. There are 3-4 more common owls you might find this way. Add these together and you have another 10 bird species or so.

Barred Owl found in Petrogylphs Provincial Park
5. Follow eBird reports. The last group of birds are miscellaneous ones. Look for reports of Snow Buntings, Horned Larks, a Snowy Owl (pretty easy to find this year), and go for a drive. You can add to your list this way. Its not very efficient and you probably won't see the intended birds. Its still a technique and it can occasionally pay off. Maybe another 3-5 birds to be found this way.

This more/less exhausts my suggestions for winter birding. Sure you can go for a walk around a woodlot; maybe you will see a chickadee or a robin. But you won't be finding hoards of birds or significantly expanding your year list. If you add up the numbers above, you will see there are probably about 35-40 fairly easy to see birds in Peterborough in the middle of winter. With a bit of extra effort and some luck, you could be pushing 50 species by mid-February. This sounds great until you realize this is what you can see here during a single morning during May. Yeah, who said winter birding would be easy.

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