Sliding into Spring!
"Springtime is the land awakening.
The March winds are the morning yawn."
This year, March winds gave way to April winds, and Winter seemed reluctant to release its hold! The changeable weather brought in some interesting visitors; it also presented challenges for returning birds that were ready to begin nesting.
Horned Larks that had paired off and dispersed weeks earlier gathered again in mid-March--- or perhaps it was another flock passing through. They were hungry, and fed together in the fields, in the middle of the driving snow.
Now and then a Horned Lark will stand still for a few moments; this one even chose a suitable background for his portrait.
"Can't say I love this weather ... one of my horns is actually iced over and flattened to my head!"
Some of the poor Horned Larks had mud and ice clumps on their feet, after the freezing and thawing that had been happening for several days.
When a few Lapland Longspurs showed up, the Horned Larks had to think about whether or not they wanted to share. They checked out the newcomer pretty closely.
This Longspur was really starting to show some darker breeding colours.
Soon a few Snow Buntings joined in too, and it was decided that there was plenty of corn for all. (Snow Bunting, 2 Lapland Longspurs, and 4 Horned Larks)
Mid-March brought Tundra Swans to our area; these photos were taken near Grand Bend on a day when thousands of Swans were in the fields and sky. The sights and sounds are worth at least one trip every year!
Pure white heads/necks on the left and right birds are signs of adults. The middle Swan (showing gray) is a juvenile.
An adult and 3 young Tundra Swans were travelling together.
Just spectacular! The wings, the feet, the streamlined body ....
Red "lipstick" and a yellow mark near the eye are distinctive features of Tundra Swans; however, they are not visible on all of the adults.
Tundra Swans with dirty bellies?
Not sure if this is something on the feathers, or if this Swan's diet is the cause of the reddish neck and belly? Some vocalizing going on too...
Up, up and away!
We spent some time in the Pinery before heading over to see the Swans, and were thrilled to see, hear, and photograph some of these wee charmers. Tufted Titmice are becoming more common in Ontario as they expand their range Northward. Lucky us!
Too many shots, I know, but ... they were pretty cooperative and photogenic. I love their gentle, rather mischievous faces,
and the bursts of orange-ish feathers below their wings.
A bit of snack still stuck to its bill...
Along with the Titmice, Nuthatches were poking around in the trees. This scruffy little Red-breasted Nuthatch looked as though it had been caught in the rain.
Larger White-breasted Nuthatches seem to move around as comfortably upside down as they do right side up! Interesting to see almost the same rust-coloured feathers (as the Titmice have) on the undersides of these Nuthatches.
"Scored a seed!"
I suppose it was appropriate on April Fool's Day that we would have another dump of snow! It was wet snow, almost rain at times, and the Snowy Owls weren't impressed.
I haven't photographed any Snowies this Winter; I felt that they were likely being watched and pursued enough without adding another photographer to their audiences! However, two of these lovely big birds had been in the area for the previous week or so, and even flew over the farm together (chasing?) during one of our heavy snowstorms. They seemed quite unconcerned about human presence, and I felt that a few "drive-by shootings" would be ok! I leaned out the car window and photographed this Owl (a young male, I think) in the mist and fog and sleet,
and then took a few shots on our way home, when the skies had cleared a bit.
The next day, this same Owl was "hiding" in a small fencerow. During the Winter, it is fairly easy for the birds to camouflage in snowy fields; Spring brings new challenges for critters with white feathers. Time to head North!
The second Snowy was an adult male. He perched on a pole on a sunny day in early April for most of the morning. This shot was also taken from the car window, and cropped quite a bit.
Glad I'm not a small, furry mammal looking up at those talons!
In early April, we visited a home that has hosted a Golden-crowned Sparrow for the Winter. "Goldie" is molting, and has lost much of the trademark crown, but there was still a small cap of golden-yellow feathers that could be spotted as he/she popped in and out of the brush.
Interestingly, Goldie has been keeping company with a White-throated Sparrow, and the two foraged and flew together the whole time we were there. We heard a bit of "chipping", but apparently this bird does some singing too, while Goldie is pretty quiet. Possibly a male White-throat and a female Golden-crowned?
As Winter (sort of) turned to Spring, Waterfowl made its way through our area. There was a Red-necked Grebe quite far out in the water near the Sparrows,
along with some Ring-necked Ducks, Common and Hooded Mergansers, and others. These Hooded Mergansers were swimming in the Stormwater Pond near Elmira with another pair.
At one point, the 2 males raised their crests and had a bit of a "discussion". I love the little alien heads!
There were also Ring-necked Ducks, Blue-winged Teal, and Buffleheads in the same pond, but all were even further out than the Hoodies, so no pics of them.
There are lots of Robins this year -- I counted more than 30 in a field on a walk in early Spring. They were finally able to pull some worms from the ground as the weather warmed in late March.
I cleaned all of the Bluebird/Tree Swallow houses around the farm, and was thrilled to see a pair of Bluebirds waiting close by. They are checking out the boxes now, and I am hoping they decide to nest here again this year!
"Singin' in the rain..." -- a gorgeous Eastern Meadowlark sang his melodies in a pasture field where nesting has taken place other years. Welcome, Spring!
In mid-April, a pair of Ravens decided to build a late nest on the side of our silo. They were sitting back in the fields one evening when I walked through, and were as surprised as I to see a Short-eared Owl fly up in front of me, and land near the Ravens.
The Ravens were not as aggressive as Crows have been with Owls, but they were quick to escort the "intruder" off the farm.
I was thrilled to see another Short-eared Owl joining the first one in flight, and flying off into the sunset -- hopefully a nesting pair!
One of my favourite early Spring happenings is the nesting of Great Horned Owls. This family has had the good sense/fortune to use a nest that is a fair distance away from easy human access, on private land, and quite high in a tree. There is also a great deal of backlighting.... these photos are heavily cropped, and not as sharp or clear as I would like! But the Owls have been safe and, for the most part, not harassed, and that is what is important!
When I first saw the Owlets, they were just 3 fluffy bumps in the nest. As they grew, we could only see 2, and wondered if 1 sibling had not survived. Mama often sat on the nest with them during these days, framed by Pussy Willows!
Number 3 finally made an appearance, but seemed much smaller, and often sat low in the nest, staying warm. Look closely, and you can see him/her on the bottom right of the piles of fluff with eyes!
Once the Owlets were a bit bigger, Mama would leave them on their own.
In this photo, the Owlet at the back (the largest one) had eaten its fill at the front of the nest, then moved to the back to allow the other two to feed on whatever delicacy was down in there!
There was a noticeable difference in size in the three babies. It was interesting to see the largest one "caring for" the smallest one on cool evenings, sometimes allowing it to snuggle in closely while he/she sat with eyes open, alert to the surroundings.
The adult Owl was usually in a tree nearby, watching quietly and resting.
On a sunny evening in mid-April, the Owlets were trying out their wings. Quite a dance it was, as they flapped and raced around the nest. Mama didn't seem overly impressed.
The babies were really starting to look more like adults.
They settled down for a bit of a rest while Mama kept watch. Some Crows had been harassing her a few days before, and she was being extra vigilant on this evening.
The Pussy Willows have turned to Catkins now, and the Owlets will soon use fresh feathers on strong young wings to fledge. A new generation will leave the safety of home, and venture out into the big, scary world.
Safe flying and happy hunting, little ones!
Hopefully we have seen the last of Winter now... we are all ready for some Spring sunshine! I saw this Fox late in the Winter, near a den. Spotted her again the other day, so am hoping she has some kits tucked away somewhere. They should soon be out and about, along with their friends; eager, as we all are, to enjoy some warmth and light after a long, cold season of Winter.
"There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of Nature -- the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter."
*I have mixed feelings about sharing Owl photos in a public way. I want to re-emphasize the fact that I did not attempt to approach the Owls that are featured here. They were either unaware or unbothered by my presence. In the first photo of the Great Horned Owl Mama, we can see her looking directly toward me. I was a long way off, but she was aware that I was there. On this occasion, I left the area as soon as she turned toward me and stared.
It is especially important not to try to get close to nesting/fledgling Owls, as they may be startled into trying to fly before they are ready to do so, becoming easy prey for other animals. Owls are beautiful, awe-inspiring creatures, and we never want to do anything that would compromise their safety or well-being for the sake of a better photograph or a closer look!
As of today, May 6, the Owlets have been out of the nest for the better part of a week. The smallest one stayed in the nest a few days longer than the other two, but hopefully all of them are hidden away in the trees, being fed by their devoted parents, and preparing to fly and hunt on their own!
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