Winter Blast Drastically Changes Birding Conditions

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Cold temperatures and a dusting of snow had birds like this Black-capped Chickadee seeking food and shelter.

What a difference a week makes. Last Tuesday, temperatures in London spiked to 16°C. For many, outdoor activities were enjoyed in a light jacket or sweater. So far this week, we’ve seen a light dusting of snow and daytime highs hovering around -6°C. Add in the windchill and it feels more like -19°C.

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Birds use several techniques to keep warm in cold weather. Feather puffing, demonstrated by this Song Sparrow, creates pockets of air which act as insulation. Shivering increases their metabolism, generating more body heat.

Not one to let the cold keep me indoors and needing my daily fix of birds, I headed to Westminster Ponds ESA. I knew the strong southwest wind blowing at 35kmh and gusting to over 50kmh would make the birding a bit tricky. Finding areas that provide shelter from the wind and a source of food for the birds would be key to having success. Fortunately there are plenty of such areas within the ESA.

I decided to start my walk in the woods knowing that the row of Eastern White Pine trees on the edge of the forest would provide an excellent wind break. Among the pines I could hear the calls of the Black-capped Chickadee. Pausing briefly, I could see several birds flitting amongst the branches, inspecting the cones for any remaining seeds. As I entered the mixed deciduous forest behind the row of pines, more Chickadees appeared. Also present were Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers and a White-breasted Nuthatch.

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Male Northern Cardinal feeding on a Common Buckthorn berry.

The back edge of the forest is overgrown with Common Buckthorn, an invasive species in Ontario. Despite the fact that they are not native, several bird species feed on their berries during winter months when other food becomes scarce. I have read mixed reports on whether or not buckthorn berries are healthy for birds. Some suggest the berries give birds diarrhea and can lead to dehydration, others claim only unripe berries cause diarrhea. It is believed that buckthorn berries are less nutritious than native berries because they are higher in carbohydrates and lower in protein and fat. Regardless of which theory is true, you cannot argue the fact that birds eat buckthorn berries. Among the tangles of buckthorn branches, several Northern Cardinals were present feeding on the bounty of fruit.

Following the trail through the buckthorn thicket, I could hear the high pitched notes of the Golden-crowned Kinglet. Glancing amongst the maze of branches revealed two of these birds. As is the case with all birds, learning their songs and calls is the best way to locate them. If not for hearing them, these tiny little birds would have gone unnoticed.

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Berries from the Common Buckthorn tree, an invasive species in Ontario, are a popular food of the American Robin during winter.

The stand of trees on the west side of Saunders Pond yielded a sufficient wind break for a group of Mallards making their way along the thin ice at the ponds edge. Hooded Mergansers could be seen further out toward the north shore. The row of Common Buckthorn alongside the boardwalk revealed a flock of American Robins feeding on the berries. A single Song Sparrow was present seeking refuge from the wind.

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The winter range of the American Robin stretches across our region and even into Quebec and the Maritimes. Look for them in winter along forest edges, rivers, and ponds where berry trees and shrubs are present.

After circling the pond, I came to the open meadow on the east side. The wind was howling across the pond, but I managed to find shelter behind a row of trees. Scanning over what was left of this year’s grasses and wildflowers, I could hear the tweets and chirps of several birds. The most abundant were Northern Cardinals and Dark-eyed Juncos. Further scanning of the area produced a lone Fox Sparrow feeding close to the ground. Having never managed a clear photograph of one of these birds, I was excited for the opportunity. Unfortunately, it never ventured far enough out of the thick cover for me to obtain an obstruction free shot.  

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Getting a clear shot of this Fox Sparrow was made difficult by the thick cover.

Dressed properly, I was quite comfortable despite the frigid temperatures and strong wind. Even with less than ideal conditions, I still enjoyed a productive day birding. It is important when faced with difficult conditions to always put the odds in your favour. Paying close attention to the conditions and my surroundings, combined with finding locations that provided food and shelter are what made made this outing successful and enjoyable. Keep these factors in mind when you go birding and I think you too will have similar success.

Good birding,






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