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  • Merri-Lee M.

Birds of Late Winter


The last of the "Snow Birds” (Horned Larks, Snow Buntings and Lapland Longspurs) have departed for their Northern breeding grounds, it seems. We had a snowfall on Mar. 9, and it brought in a handful of Horned Larks and 2 Snow Buntings. On Mar. 13, a flock of 25-30 appeared in the field in the morning, but did not come in to feed. That same afternoon, we saw a flock of thousands of Snow Buntings on the “Centre Sideroad”. That was our last sighting, and I expect that they were gathering themselves together to head out!

A pair of Horned Larks continued to feed on the cracked corn, and seeds that they found in the hayfield, for about a week after the others had taken their leave.

One little Horned Lark (Hoyti, with the white forehead and yellow throat) has been seen until this morning, but even he has moved on now. He kept his “horns” raised almost constantly.

Although the smaller birds have disappeared for the season, we have had a record number of large “Birds of Prey” in close proximity to the house for the past month. Several Snowy Owls have taken up residence along the 4th this winter. We had a beautiful pure white Male early in the season. This Owl was sitting, unbeknownst to me, beside our barn one morning when I walked the dogs, and he flew up about 20 feet from us. He was a particularly skittish fellow, and I did not attempt to photograph him. Disappointingly, a persistent photographer trespassed on the neighbour’s land and approached this Owl several times, and the bird eventually moved on. However, another young Male Snowy Owl appeared to take over this territory, and he has been quite accommodating about being watched and photographed.

It is so very important to respect the “signals” sent out by these amazing creatures, and to maintain a good distance from them, in order that we do not disturb them as they hunt and rest. This Owl is obviously untroubled by human presence!

Another Snowy in the area is likely a Female -- larger than the Male, with more distinct brown markings. Like the first adult Male, she is an Owl that does not appreciate being approached, and I only took a quick shot from the car...

A Merlin and a Cooper’s Hawk have been seen in the trees, and both made attempts to take birds from the ground traps when we were banding Snow Buntings. A Rough-legged Hawk hunted the fields for about 3 weeks, and has moved on now. A pair of Ravens showed some interest in a platform on the silo, but only stayed for a few days.

A young Sharp-shinned Hawk sat patiently in one of the trees at the edge of the house (near the bird feeders, of course) for part of an afternoon. I have been told that one way to distinguish this bird from a Cooper’s Hawk is that the Sharp-shinned has a “kinder -looking face”! The Sharpie is also considerably smaller (11” to the Cooper’s 16.5”).

A Peregrine Falcon made a brief appearance one afternoon, sitting on a hydro pole beside a line of Snow Buntings. The Peregrine has a distinctive dark “moustache”, and the wings extend down to the tip of a relatively short tail.

We have been thrilled to have seen a pair of Northern Harriers in the area. They have stayed around for about a month now, hunting low over the fields, and doing their aerial acrobatics in plain view outside our dining room window. We are hoping that they will decide to make the farm their summer home, and maybe even add a few more little Harriers to the population!

I have struggled to photograph these two. It would seem that they are most active on stormy, windy days around dusk, away out in the field....

The Female is larger than the Male, and is beautifully marked with browns and rust-oranges and black.

The Male is smaller, and “grayer” overall. Both Male and Female have a white patch above the tail on the top of the body that is distinctive to Northern Harriers.

One afternoon in mid-March, the Male hunted in the field closest to the house, and then sat in the longer grass to pick away at the ball of mud and grass that he had carried. Eating? (It didn’t look like food, but....) Gathering nest material?

Although Northern Harriers usually hunt fairly close to the fields, every now and then they take to the sky, and spiral higher and higher, riding the air currents...

Almost every year, for the past 25 years, we have seen Short-eared Owls here. A pair used to show up in February sometime, and we would see them until April. Now we only see one, if any, for a short period in the late winter. This little Male has been around for about a month, sometimes flying with the Northern Harriers, sometimes sitting quietly in the corn stubble....again, photos are difficult, but these pictures show the difference in colour between the underside and topside of this diurnal Owl.

And if I hadn’t seen him land here, I never would have spotted him in the snowstorm:

There are usually some Red-tailed Hawks around too, and this beauty was soaring overhead on a sunny day in mid-March.

It’s definitely been a “Raptor Winter” on the 4th Line this year. Hopefully a few will stick around to nest....

One of the most amazing spectacles of late Winter/early Spring is the arrival of the Tundra Swans. They leave the Eastern coast of the U.S. (where they have spent their Winter), and fly over sometime in early or mid-March. Their call is unmistakable, and the sight of large flocks flying over the farm against a clear blue sky is awe-inspiring! These shots were taken near Grand Bend, where thousands of Tundras gathered this year on the flooded fields, before they headed to their Arctic breeding grounds. Majestic and powerful, their presence in our area is one of the great “Migration Miracles”.

Adult birds are pure white, while the Juveniles are grayer. (Top bird is a young Tundra Swan.)

It is almost the end of March now, and many of the Birds that are featured in this blog will be on their way to other, more Northern, locations for their “family time”. Migratory Birds lead busy, stressful lives, and we wish them well in their struggles to survive and raise their young amidst the increasing difficulties of an environment beset by climate change, habitat loss and destructive human intervention. May we continue to work toward a growing appreciation for, and increased protection of, this precious world that we all call home.


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