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  • Merri-Lee M.

More Winter Gifts

Updated: Mar 6



Now that February is upon us with some stormy weather and frigid temperatures, the Snow Buntings have been appearing regularly. We eagerly await their arrival every year, and load up on cracked corn for their dining pleasure! At first there were small flocks of 25 or 30 stopping by briefly, but as of mid-February, there were at least 150 Snow Buntings here from about 8 a.m. until dusk.


They fly in to feed,

then all leave together for a rest in the field.


They return, often to land on the wires,


before dropping to feed again.


This year, the Snow Buntings have found a new roosting/resting place. Every now and then, the flock heads back to a small Maple tree,

and "decorates" it for a time, before returning to the corn.


On February 12, we banded 45 Snow Buntings here, and it was interesting to see the differences in each bird as we looked closely:

The glossy black and pure white wings on this Bunting tell us that it is an adult male.




Young male Snow Buntings are not quite as "black and white" as the adults -- this fellow likely hatched in Greenland or Iqaluit sometime last summer. The black wing feathers are duller on young males.



Female Snow Buntings have a "browner" overall look than the males. We can see a gray patch on the shoulder that tells us that this bird is a female. She has lots of white on her wings, indicating that she is likely an adult bird, and has probably made at least 3 successful journeys to/from the far North.



Holding these tiny travellers in our hands, and considering all that they are able to do and endure, is humbling and awe-inspiring...



On Valentine's Day we had our first visit from Horned Larks. About 20 flew in on their own, then joined the Snow Buntings in the corn piles. The next day there were about 30 of them, feeding with the 150-ish Snow Buntings.






Now we are just waiting for the Lapland Longspurs!

There have been 2 Northern Cardinals coming to the feeders.


Half a dozen Blue Jays show up for their peanuts every morning, then help themselves to cracked corn or sunflower seeds. But peanuts are the best...


Common Redpolls are daily visitors; one day there were around 40; most days there are 15-20.




Most of the Common Redpolls have been young males or females, but there are a few colourful adult males too.


This silly snowman has become a favourite "feeder".



One morning, a Bald Eagle perched briefly on the Spruce trees at the edge of the farm. We see them cruising over from time to time, but they rarely land.



There have been a few times this season when a Rough-legged Hawk has made an appearance. Other years, we have seen them sitting at the top of the Spruce trees in our lane, but perhaps they are leaving this space for the Owls right now! Rough-legged Hawks are only present in Winter in our area; they breed in the far North. My Sibley guide says, "Fluffy plumage, small bill, and small feet are all adaptations to Arctic life, giving this species a distinctive appearance." Although this photo is cropped quite a bit, we can see the tiny bill and feet. Compare these features to those of the Eagle (above)!



Some of our most eagerly-anticipated Winter visitors are Snowy Owls. Over the past weeks, they have been spending time along our road, resting on hydro poles, or sitting out in the fields during the day. While most people have been respectful of the Owls, there are always a few who approach too closely ... I did speak to one man* who thought it was appropriate to stand underneath an Owl's perch and whistle to scare her off (for a flight shot -- 3 times at least). None of us has the right to disturb or harass these beautiful creatures.


One day when I walked, this Female Snowy Owl rested on a pole at the end of our lane, partially hidden by trees. I crossed to the other side, pretending not to see her (!), then turned and walked backwards away from her, and snapped a few shots as she dozed. Although Snowies are well dressed for the cold, this little lady seemed glad for some moments of solitude in the warmth of the late afternoon sunshine.


When I returned, the sky was looking darker, and still she snuggled on her post. I don't think she was sleeping very soundly --- her eyes were slightly open, and from away down the road I could see her beginning to stir and turn her head, likely readying herself for an evening of hunting.


Most days, this same female sits on a (rather wild-looking) hydro pole in the neighbour's lane.


The odd time she will sit on the ground, but she usually prefers a higher perch.



An almost-all-white male Snowy Owl has been seen several times around the farm, and he landed on the silo one evening when daylight was nearly gone. I opened the back door quietly and stuck the camera out for a few quick shots (which I had to lighten a bit!).




White-winged Crossbills were still hanging around in early February, and these birds were up near Conestoga Lake. They really liked the tiny cones on young Spruce trees that grow along the side of the road in a small forest. The red males and yellow females fed together in a flock, as is their habit. This is the first Winter that I have ever seen Crossbills in our area; they are fascinating little birds!





It's been a fabulous Winter in many ways. In spite of lockdowns, quarantines, masks, variants, no vaccines, hand sanitizer, and (especially) a sense of longing to be with the ones we love .... there have been surprises and wonders in abundance in the natural world to sustain and encourage us.


In the words of John Muir,

"Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where Nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike."


May you find solace and joy in the gifts Nature provides for you in your Winter world!

-Merri-Lee



I cannot stress enough the need for care and respect when observing and photographing wild creatures. All of the birds in this blog were photographed with a long lens from a distance (with the exception of the sociable little Redpolls that don't seem bothered at all by humans in their space). The Owls in particular are given a wide berth, and I wait many days before quickly photographing the ones that are comfortable with my presence.


*Unfortunately, the man to whom I spoke is still out and around, seeking out photo opportunities. If you see him (in his little red truck!), or others like him, in your travels, please consider speaking up in defense of the Owls. The Owls have no way of protecting themselves against this type of behaviour; it is up to us to "be their voice" while they are our guests!



As always, I welcome your comments, questions, corrections, etc. You may sign in to the blog and leave comments publicly (sometimes it works!!), or go to the Contact page on this site. You can also email me directly at ml@xplornet.ca.

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