It was another cold week in the Forest City with wind chills hovering around -20 Celsius or colder most days. These frigid conditions are among my favourite to get out birding. As area lakes and ponds freeze, large quantities of waterfowl make their way to the Thames River in search of open water. During these conditions, Bald Eagles are also readily observed along the river, and despite being a species at risk in Ontario, are commonly found within the city during the winter months.
Throughout winter the majority of my birding is done along the Thames River in both Greenway and Springbank Park. The moving water in this section of river remains ice free regardless of how cold it gets attracting a variety of birds. I made several trips to the river this past week hoping to observe and photograph the multitude of birds on the river itself and along its banks. As a result, I was delighted by my observations and the images I was able to capture.
To enjoy birding in these conditions being properly dressed is paramount. I have tried a lot of different clothing over the years and consequently wasted a considerable amount of money on garments claiming to be warm that in fact are not. If you are curious as to what I wear in order to be able to spend half a day or more outside during these conditions, please visit this blog post I wrote a few years ago titled Enjoy Winter Birding By Dressing For The Weather.
One observation I am happy to report is the number Bald Eagles observed daily along the Thames River. Along the north bank across from the pollution plant in Greenway Park is the best place to observe these majestic raptors. One morning just after 9 a.m., I observed seven Bald eagles, mostly juveniles, perched in the large poplars. Despite their immense size, juvenile eagles can be challenging to locate when perched, so watching for movement along the bank will assist in locating these birds. Birding in Springbank Park also revealed a number of Bald Eagles, again mostly juveniles, with at least one of these birds observed on each of my visits.
As mentioned previously, waterfowl numbers were quite impressive this past week. With the extended period of cold weather, both dabbling and diving duck numbers increased substantially. Easily found were: Common Goldeneye, Common Merganser, Hoodeded Merganser, and Bufflehead. Again this week, I located a male Northern PIntail in Springbank Park. Also found within the park were my first Red-breasted Mergansers of the year with two females and one male observed. These birds only show up on the river during particularly cold winters and are more of a rarity in our immediate area. Reports on eBird indicate a female Long-tailed Duck and Pied-billed Grebe were present in Greennway Park on New Year’s Day. While birding in Greenway Park, I observed a male Lesser Scaup, presumable the same bird I first observed in mid-December, downstream from outflow at the pollution plant. This bird is extremely challenging to locate as it tends to stick close to the near bank often obstructed by the tree cover.
Each winter Great Blue Herons can be found along the Thames River. The section of river near the pollution plant often yields the best results. Open water provides a food source for these birds which sustains them throughout the harsh winter months. As a result, many of these birds remain in the area all winter. Last week I observed six Great Blue Herons in this small section of river. Look for herons on the leeward bank seeking shelter from the cold wind.
Birding along the Thames River during the winter months is not limited to water birds and raptors as many songbirds are also abundant. The forested areas throughout the aforementioned parks as well as the shrubby, tree-lined banks provide the perfect habitat for a variety of species. Black-capped Chickadees are perhaps the most numerous, but Northern Cardinals, Blue Jays, Nuthatches, and Woodpeckers are also readily present. Paying attention to wind direction and finding sheltered areas will increase the number of birds observed.
If you have not made it out to either of these parks yet this winter, you truly are missing out on some great birding opportunities. Observing many of these species does not require hours spent searching in the cold. Many of these species can be observed within minutes of arriving at the park and only a short walk from any of the designated parking areas.
I was never a big fan of outdoor winter activities until I got serious into birding and photography. With the abundance of birds at these two beautiful parks, I find myself looking forward to winter each year and aside from spring migration, it is my favourite time to bird. If you get the chance, layer up and try birding at one or both of these great parks in the coming weeks. By doing so I think you will agree there are certainly many fantastic birds present and will be rewarded with great views for your efforts.